Disney’s Newsies wows on stage

I’ll be the first to admit, a labor dispute at the turn of the 20th century doesn’t exactly sound like fodder for a family-friendly musical. But Disney’s “Newsies,” based on the 1992 [Disney] movie of the same name, is exactly that – a crowd-pleasing romp that shows a ragtag group of newboys standing up to one of New York City’s most powerful publishers.

If you go

  • July 28-Aug. 7
  • Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago
  • broadwayinchicago.com

Newsies tells the story of the real-life Newsboys Strike of 1899, but tempers all the history with some music and a lot of dance. As a child of the ‘80s and ‘90s, I have seen the movie version, which stars a young Christian Bale, more than my fair share of times (I mentioned young Christian Bale, right?), so I couldn’t wait to see how its charms translated on to the stage.

As a devotee to the film, I was surprised at how quickly the play switched it up, immediately establishing the audience’s emotional connection to Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro), the story’s hero, through the song “Santa Fe.” Barreiro perfectly embodies the charismatic, street-smart teen who’s in a bit over his head when he unexpectedly become the leader of a labor movement. The actor is in every way Bale’s equal, except one: Barreiro’s vocals soar far beyond anything in the movie, lending a sweet sincerity to his solo numbers.

Ultimately, however, “Newsies” is about, yes, the newsies. And the play truly comes alive when the whole group takes the stage. The Cadillac Palace crackled with energy throughout “Carrying the Banner,” “The World Will Know,” “Seize the Day” and “King of New York” as the actors showed off incredible dance moves combining ballet, tap and gymnastics (and probably some other styles I can’t identify). It’s not exaggerating to say that my mouth hung open in awe half the time – and the other half I was grinning with delight. Shout out to Jordan Samuels, whose Specs legitimately defied gravity more times than I can count.

I loved seeing a stage filled with male performers (if I counted right, there are only four women in the cast), singing and dancing with such vigor. Between this and the summer Olympics, I wouldn’t be surprised if some little boys started taking a little bit more interest in dance and gymnastics.

The cast is filled out by some strong performers, such as Steve Blanchard as newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer, Aisha de Haas as the newsies’ unlikely ally Medda Larkin, and Morgan Keene as a reporter whose case of writer’s block hit uncomfortably close to home for me. I also enjoyed Andy Richardson as Jack’s lovable best friend, Crutchie, and Stephen Michael Langton as the newbie newsie who helps organize the troops for battle.

Little ones might not understand all the ins-and-outs of a strike from more than one hundred years ago, but I can pretty much guarantee they’ll be transfixed by the dancing. And it does feel particularly apt during this election year that they can see kids speaking truth to power, standing up for the little guy, and finding ways to compromise. While I did notice a handful of expletives in the script, they fly by so quickly that they’ll probably go right over most kids’ heads. (Ditto Medda’s burlesque show.)

Unfortunately, “Newsies” is only in Chicago through Aug. 7, so you’d better take the lead from Jack and the gang: Arise and seize the day (and some tickets).

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