reviewed by Daniel Shock

Civic’s production of Disney’s Newsies, directed by Suzanne Fleenor – is spectacular. I wanted to relieve your tension right away so that you didn’t have to rush through the lengthier parts of this review to get to what you really want to know. Go see it!

Disney’s Newsies is a theatrical musical based on the 1992 musical film of the same name. Both are based on the very real story of the striking newsboys in 1899 New York City. The film, released in the spring of 1992, with music by Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and many others) was not a box office success. The Rotten Tomatoes score for the film is 39%. Roger Ebert gave it a 1 and half star review. I confess that I clearly remember renting the VHS of the film when I was in college. I made it about 15 minutes in before giving up on it.

For most films with those statistics, that would be the end of the story. Newsies is not most films. If you look at the other rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the audience score, you will see that 88% of audience members liked it. Over the years since its release, Newsies grew a rabid cult following. In 2012, the show debuted on Broadway. It was a smash success, becoming the fastest of any Disney musical to turn a profit.

In her director’s note, director Suzanne Fleenor reviews the historical events that inspired the film and the show. She writes: “In 1899 two of the most prosperous newspaper publishers in the country, Hearst and Pulitzer worked together to figure out a way to make even more money. The Spanish-American war, largely created by the press as a way to sell newspapers had ended; a dip in sales ensued. They targeted the bottom rung of the publishing ladder; newsboys and girls.” The publishers raised the price that they charged the newsboys/girls from 50 cents to 60 cents. She also notes that “Most of the kids who sold the papers were orphans or runaways living in tenement housing.” These kids were fighting for survival and the price increase threatened to push them over the edge.

from left: Jack Kelly (played by Jake Letts) and Crutchie (David Cunningham) in a scene from Civic Theatre’s production of “Newsies”

The show opens with Jack Kelly (Jake Letts) telling his friend and fellow newspaper delivery boy, Crutchie (David Cunningham) of his hopes to leave New York for new horizons – Santa Fe. We learn that Jack lives with many other kids – orphans and runaways – who make their living selling newspapers. While the newsies are purchasing their papers to sell for the day, they meet Davey (Alex Brophy) and his sister Les (Emily Chrzanowski). Davey and Les are lucky enough to live with their family, who they intend to support with their newspaper sales. Jack notes that Les’ youth is an advantage and offers to help – for a cut.

from left: Hannah (Emily Schaab), Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Kruze), Seitz (David Brock) and Bunsen (Tanner Brunson) in a scene from Civic Theatre’s production of “Newsies”

Meanwhile, in tycoon Joseph Pulitzer’s (Steve Kruze) office we hear about slipping newspaper distribution and the economics of newspapers as justification for placing the burden of higher prices on the newsies. When we catch back up with Jack, Davey and Les we find that they are being pursued by the corrupt Snyder (Parrish Williams), Warden of “The Refuge” – a juvenile detention center. They seek refuge in the vaudeville theatre run by Jack’s friend Medda Larkin (Tiffany Gilliam). While the siblings watch a show at the theatre, Jack becomes infatuated with young reporter, Katherine Plumber (Ani Arzumanian) who is there to write a review of the show. She ignores his advances, but becomes curious when he leaves a portrait of her that he has sketched on a newspaper. In the morning Jack and the other newsies find out about the price increase. Jack, with Davey’s help inspires the newsies to strike and fight back against the powerful newspaper tycoons.

This production is a joy. There is not a weak link in the cast. Jake Letts as Jack is kind, tough and sings like an angel. I never once doubted his leadership abilities or that his Jack deserved the loyalty of these newsies. Ani Arzumanian as aspiring journalist, Katherine, gets one of the best songs in the show “Watch What Happens”. She finds humor, vulnerability and strength in just the right places. David Cunningham deserves recognition for his role of “Crutchie”. His gave a moving performance throughout and really shined in his solo “Letter from the Refuge”. When Tiffany Gilliam started singing “That’s Rich”… I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped. She gives a performance that makes you question life: 1. Why is she not a star? 2. Why do I not get out to see shows more often? She was outstanding!

Katherine (Ani Arzumanian) and Jack Kelly (Jake Letts) in a scene from Civic Theatre’s production of “Newsies”

Another performance that really caught me by surprise was Emily Chrzanowski as 12 year old Les. She makes the very most of her part, bashing heads, delivering great comic timing, and I was stunned to see in her bio that she is 16 years old. She at once seems older and younger than that. Maybe 16 is just right. Alex Brophy as her brother, Davey, is genuine, sweet and loyal. He makes Davey the perfect balance to his friend, Jack. Steve Kruze has a great singing voice and he used it so well as Joseph Pulitzer. He was very effective portraying Pulitzer’s self-centered nature. I also enjoyed the Jimmy Durante flavor that Darrin Gowan brought as Wiesel, the unsympathetic newspaper employee that sold papers to the kids.

There were so many great moments from the company it would be impossible to mention them all. The singing was great all around. Harmonies were, to my ear, spot on and gave me chills. The choreography by Anne Beck was thrilling and so very impressive. (I watched to see if I could catch anyone a half step behind the others…but found nothing. Everyone was in perfect lock step.) Adroit musical direction was provided by Brent Marty while the orchestra, led by Matthew Tippel, was capable and added great energy to the performance.

Medda Larkin (Tiffany Gilliam) entertains the crowd in a scene from Civic Theatre’s production of “Newsies”

Technical aspects of the production were also very pleasing. The minimalist set by David McQuillen Robertson was perfect. Scene changes felt natural and were not distracting or over long. Adreienne Conces’ costumes were appropriate for the era. Tiffany Gilliam’s costumes stole the show, I think. Lighting was varied and natural. Sound was generally good with a few spots that seemed a little muddy – but that is a nitpick that should not in anyway discourage you from seeing this show!

I would not delay in getting your tickets to Disney’s Newsies. The show will run through Saturday May 11 at the Tarkington Theatre, 3 Center Green, Carmel, IN. Call the box office at 317.843.3800 for tickets.

  • – Photos by Zach Rosing
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