Okay, before we begin thisreview, let's review our terminology. Once upon a time there were "labor unions," groups of employees who banded together to fight for the rights of workers who were often abused by their employers. Weird, right? These days, with plutocrats in full blossom and an autocrat in the White House, the idea of labor unions sounds as outdated and unnecessary as a Paris Hilton Film Festival.
So when you encounter the musical Newsies, now at the Porthouse Theatre on the Blossom Music Center campus, you may reflect on the idea behind collective action. This show, adapted from the 1992 Disney film, is based on an actual event in 1899. That's when a bunch of newspaper boys fought the titans of publishing, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, through collective bargaining, and won!
It's a stirring tale with several contemporary connections. And the large cast under the always-disciplined direction of Terri J. Kent handles it masterfully. But if one element of the show rises above all the others, it is undoubtedly the performance of the young men playing the title roles. They dance with skill to the music of Alan Menken — performed exceptionally well by the orchestra led by music director Jonathan Swoboda — and sing the lyrics of Jack Feldman.
Choreographer MaryAnn Black has borrowed, appropriately, from the original moves designed by Christopher Gattelli, and the execution of these high-spirited, sinewy dances is crisp and dazzling. The young hoofers not only convince you of their passion with their feet, their facial expressions while they dance are totally in character — plus, you never see them thinking about where the next footfall should be. Indeed, in the galvanizing ditty "Seize the Day," which is reprised two times later in the show, the boys go airborne into spins so often the show could easily be re-titled Pirouettes.
Aside from dancing, the story as written by Harvey Fierstein stays pretty close to the historical event, as the leader of the newsies, Jack Kelly, battles personal doubts to find his courage. It's too bad the author didn't stick with the real name of the boy who led the actual strike, since Louis Ballatt's nickname was Kid Blink (he was blind in one eye). That's a name that deserves a song all its own.
Anyhow, Jack is attracted to the beauteous Katherine, who's a reporter for one of the New York dailies. And she's enamored of Jack's rabble rousing, igniting a romance that is somewhat challenged when Jack learns that she is actually the daughter of evil Pulitzer. In these roles, Matt Gittins and Katelyn Cassidy develop interesting characters, with Gittins being particularly affecting in the one romantic scene they share. But each has a singing deficit, with Gittins unable to sustain notes with richness and depth and Cassidy deploying a rather edgy, piercing vocal style.
The best voices in the show belong to Stephen Paul Cramer, who also gives Pulitzer a strong presence as a corporate bigwig who knows how to throw his weight around, and Tina D. Stump in the basically thankless and extraneous role of vaudeville theater owner Medda Larkin. Also providing support are Bryce Baxter as earnest Davey, Jack's second in command who isn't quite as hot headed, and Rohn Thomas in multiple roles that each have their distinct qualities. Morgan Thomas-Mills is also a standout as Crutchie, the newsboy who limps along on a bum leg but never loses his spirit.
In the featured comedy role of Les, the young brother of Davey who tags along with the older boys and injects droll comments now and then, Finn O'Hara keeps up with the frenetic pace and cadges a couple laughs. But some of his high-pitched punch lines are a bit indecipherable due to a rushed delivery. And at the end, Mavis Jennings appears as Gov. Theodore Roosevelt to strong-arm Pulitzer and straighten everything out. Jennings played a similar role in the Porthouse season opener, 9 to 5, indicating that this actor may be specializing in playing a human deus ex machina.
Although there's nothing particularly new about Nolan O'Dell's scenic design, the three rolling fire escape-style stairways and balcony units do their own sort of dance. These swiveling and spinning units, two of them three levels high, provide the performers with a variety of playing spaces that evoke the period without getting too heavy handed.
But the major reason for checking out this production is for the invigorating dance numbers. And at the risk of leaving someone out, it seems only fitting to salute these performers by name. So take a bow: Ryan Borgo, Josh Maldonado, Josh Trattner, Andrew Muylle, Jake Rosko, Jack Lewis, Nick Johnson, Joey Kennedy, Joey Fontana, Matthew Smetana, John Viso and Dale Melancon. May you pirouette in good health!