Review: Disney’s Newsies at Washington, DC’s Arena Stage
Now is the time to seize the day… by seeing the new production of Disney’s Broadway musical “Newsies” now at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
This retelling of the 1899 newsboy strike in New York City is based on the smash Disney Broadway musical, which was in turn based on Disney’s 1992 fizzle of a film starring a young, pre-American Psycho, pre-Batman Christian Bale.
The new production strikes (if you’ll pardon the pun) all the right notes, boasting a high-energy score and super-athletic choreography performed by its talented ensemble (of mostly young men) on the venue’s theater-in-the-round Fichlander Stage.
The set design, by Ken MacDonald, uses the theater’s unusual space to good effect. The theater-in-the-round lends itself to full audience immersion and makes theater-goers a part of the show from the moment they enter the space, as they have to duck to avoid the laundry hanging from clotheslines suspended around the room. Set changes are handled fluidly by wheeling scaffolding off and on stage as the scene changes from the gritty Manhattan Newsies’ square to the more comfortable offices of newspaper magnate and chief villain Joseph Pulitzer.
Clever choreography (by Parker Esse) allows the audience to enjoy every angle of the dance numbers that made the Broadway show so popular. Dancers spin and jump, backflip and cartwheel from one corner of the space to the other easily, giving everyone ample opportunity to appreciate the acrobatics. At times certain members of the audience are even treated to an up-close view of the actors, as they sit right alongside them.
Romantic leads Daniel J. Maldonado (in the Christian Bale role of Jack Kelly) and Erin Weaver (Katherine Plumber) are largely believable in their respective roles as handsome-but-tough head newsboy and earnest young female reporter. Maldonado is just the right amount of sweet mixed with swagger, and he carries the part with a load of charm. Weaver seems a little less self-assured, but still she wins the audience over with her lovely voice. The colorful role of theater-owner Medda, played with gusto by Nova Payton, is a little underdeveloped, so we just don’t get to enjoy enough of Payton’s fabulous voice and obvious charisma.
But the shortcomings of the play itself are more than compensated for by the enthusiastic big ensemble numbers. The songs which made the movie and the Broadway show stand out are all here in full effect — Seize the Day, King of New York, and Carrying the Banner — and are performed with such enthusiasm and skill that they leave you wanting more, more, more.
Stand-outs in the excellent cast of dancers include Chaz Wolcott (Race) who leads off the second act with a rousing version of “King of New York,” singing and tapping so energetically atop a wooden table that it seems it might collapse. Luke Spring (Elmer), whose featured tap solo at the end of that same number, is also a real crowd-pleaser and demonstrates that he must have the strongest and most flexible ankles in the world!
Despite a very few occurrences of mild curse words, this production is suitable for — and will be enjoyed by — the entire family. Its uplifting story of young people standing up to change the world still resonates, perhaps even moreso now, considering the actions of environmental activist Greta Thunberg and the “March for Our Lives” movement.
With the holiday season upon us, taking in a performance would make for a great family outing. The show runs about two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission.
Disney’s Newsies, directed by Molly Smith, choreography by Parker Esse and musical direction by Laura Bergquist, has been extended through December 29, 2019, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, D.C. Tickets are available on the Arena Stage website.
Can’t get enough of Disney’s Newsies? Disney’s Newsies: The Broadway Musical, filmed at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre, and the original 1992 film “Newsies” are available for streaming on the new Disney+.