By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
I’ve just seen what has to be one of the loopiest, wackiest musicals of all time and I’m utterly mystified what to tell you about it. Let’s start with the facts. The show is Newsies and this local premiere is brought to us by the fine folks at Pittsburgh Musical Theatre.
Our story begins in 1992 when Disney –
No, wait. We need to go further back. All the way to 1899 and the hardscrabble world of New York City where the afternoon editions of the daily papers were sold by children. (You know, that “Extree! Extree! Read all about it!” kinda thing.) They were poor and most were homeless orphans and/or immigrants. Back then Joseph Pulitzer (he of the prize) and William Randolph Hearst (he of the sled) got into a circulation war. Pulitzer published the Evening World, Hearst put out the Evening Journal and both men, in hopes of making more money, squeezed the fleet of children distributing their papers to get it. Then one day the kids snapped and even though they didn’t have a union launched what became known as the Newsboys Strike of 1899.
Newsies continues through May 12. Byham Theatre, Downtown. 412/456-6666. www.pittsburghmusicals.com
Now we go back to 1992 when composer Alan Menken, fresh from the success of Little Shop of Horrors, Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, writes songs, with lyrics by Jack Feldman, for a Disney movie musical about the strike called Newsies.
It starred Christian Bale, Bill Pullman, Robert Duval and Ann-Margaret … and it bombed! But thanks to home video and the passage of time, the movie became something of a cult favorite and in 2012 a version with new songs from Menken and Feldman and a book by Harvey Fierstein opened on Broadway.
And now Pittsburgh Musical Theatre presents a production directed by Trey Compton, choreographed by Natalie Malotke with musical direction from Francesca Tortorello.
It’s the nuttiest couple of hours I’ve spent in a theater recently but, perhaps craziest of all, I had a hugely entertaining time.
What I had so much trouble processing was the cognitive dissidence of the whole exercise. It’s a musical comedy so it’s not going to be historically accurate and events would be shaped to create a theatrical, rather than truthful, experience. I’m okay with all that. But try this thought experiment: Think of a homeless orphaned immigrant child in 1899. Think about what that must have been like. And if I ask you to describe the experience in one word how many of you would brightly chirp “Disney!”
Yeah, me neither.
These are just about the cutest, most ragamuffin-y, downright adorably plucky, mop headed little tykes you ever did see in your whole life. This show makes you want to buy your very own homeless orphaned immigrant child and stick the thing on the top of your Christmas tree. All your friends will gape: “Oh my God!!! That’s soooo precious!! Where can I get my own?”
Every single solitary moment of Newsies is as fake as William Barr’s dedication to the rule of law.
Your head spins. Look, that boy with the crutch – is his name really Crutchie? Yep! The one with the glasses, do they actually call him Specs? You bet! The whole thing feels like the musical Annie, only done in drag. The cartoony-ness of Annie is okay because, duh, it’s a cartoon. But this – it’s like Pixar did a version of “The Trail of Tears.”
And yet, even with all that buzzing in my head, I was floored by this rock-solid production from Compton and Co. It’s a mess of a story with a huge cast – if you’re under 25 and a guy who can carry a tune and move in rhythm, chances are you’re appearing in this production – but Compton is relentless in focusing on the plot, such as it is, and driving this cast to stay on message and in the moment. The temptation to camp it up must have been enormous but the performers bring absolute sincerity and total commitment while they routinely (and rewardingly) explode their dancing and singing skills in one of the (many) big, rousing anthems Menken has written.
The cast is simply too large to single out but it’s astonishing to see a show (and then a production) built so determinedly around the abilities of one person. In New York, that was Jeremy Jordan … here it’s David Toole. I simply cannot imagine any other local performer (or national for that matter) who could turn in a performance as jaw-droppingly powerful as Toole does here. He carries this entire production on his shoulders without a misstep or a fumble. And he’s made this Herculean task seem utterly effortless.
There are many, many terrific performances in the PMT production of Newsies, but the evening belongs to Toole.