Porthouse’s ‘Newsies’ performs above the fold
By Bob Abelman
Disney musicals tend to be eye-catching, toe-tapping and crowd-pleasing affairs, and Disney’s “Newsies” –at Porthouse Theatre in Cuyahoga Falls – is no exception.
Set in New York City in the late-1800s, the musical tells the tale of charismatic Jack Kelly (Matt Gittins), the leader of a ragged band of teenaged newsies, who dreams of a better life far from the hardship of the streets.
But when publishing titan Joseph Pulitzer (Stephen Paul Cramer) raises distribution prices at the newsboys’ expense, Jack finds a cause to fight for. With the help of his self-actualizing sidekick Davey (Bryce Baxter) and Katherine (Katelyn Cassidy), a renegade reporter and second act love interest, they rally newsies from the five boroughs to strike for what’s right.
Disney’s “Newsies” is ever-so loosely based on a true story, which was first turned into a popular 1992 Disney live-action film and, later, a stage production with revised music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman and book by Harvey Fierstein. The show premiered on Broadway in 2012, where it won Tony Awards for best choreography and best original score.
Those awards – and the lack of others – speak volumes, for the show’s explosive dancing, dynamic anthems like “Seize the Day,” “The World Will Know” and “Carrying the Banner,” and hummable numbers like “King of New York” are its most defining and entertaining features.
This reality has been recognized by Porthouse director Terri Kent and fully realized by musical director Jonathan Swoboda’s wonderful 11-piece orchestra and MaryAnn Black’s athletic, ballet-based choreography, which pays homage to Christopher Gattelli’s original staging. The show’s production numbers are outstanding.
They co-exist with a highly predictable storyline, cliché-driven dialogue, and an abundance of Disneyesque theatricality, where every situation facing the newsies is dramatic and dire. Nearly every dire situation leads to a speech about brotherhood and unity made by Jack, seconded by Davey and reported by Katherine. And every inspiring speech builds to a rousing song and an extended dance break.
Even local politician Teddy Roosevelt (Marvis Jennings), who makes an entrance toward the end of the show to put an end to the newspaper strike, says to Pulitzer: “Don’t just stand there letting these children sing. Endlessly.”
In addition to the truly outstanding dancing and singing, this Porthouse production boasts fine acting – particularly by Gittins as Kelly, Cassidy as Katherine, and Morgan Thomas-Mills as Crutchie – and possesses a quality for which there is no specific Tony Award – unbridled passion.
Nearly every newsie is a distinctive, thoroughly endearing character and every actor playing one radiates energy and enthusiasm, which drives this musical.
Only Baxter, who plays Davey as a dandy, and Finn O’Hara, who is unconvincing and disengaged as his precocious kid brother Les, fail to deliver.
Scenic designer Nolan O’Dell forgoes the rear projections employed in the Broadway and touring shows, relying instead on faux-brick flooring, a reproduction of these production’s metal scaffolding centerpiece, and little else. The simplicity serves this production well and helps showcase the fine performances.
Brittney Harrell’s costuming is also serviceable, although Katherine’s puffy-sleeve dresses – pulled, it seems, from the “Hello Dolly” wardrobe closet – is a bit too musical comedy for this character.
The area’s premiere production of Disney’s “Newsies” does this piece proud. As a result, Porthouse’s summer season of musicals ends on a resounding high note. cv
WHERE: Porthouse Theatre, 3143 O’Neil Rd., Cuyahoga Falls
WHEN: Through Aug. 13
TICKETS & INFO: $22 – $40, call 330-672-3884 or visit porthousetheatre.com
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio AP Media Editors best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on July 30, 2017.
Lead image: The newsies take flight. Photo | Paul Silla