NEWSIES at the Troubador Wembley Park
“What really gets the blood flowing is the showmanship and the staging.”
One cannot fail to see the serendipitous irony of Newsies: The Musical’s UK premiere. The official website, in sepia tones of old newsprint, has the format of a daily rag. “Newsies Go On Strike! Read More” is the headline splashed across the homepage. Similar headlines dominate the front pages of the evening tabloids that litter the street corners as we make our way to the theatre, negotiating the travel chaos caused by the current strike action. If nothing else, the timing of “Newsies” is spot on.
The struggles of the protagonists; the issues of homelessness, exploitation, security, solidarity and capitalism are going to resonate strongly, even though the plot, based on historical fact, is over a century old. As the dawn of the twentieth century approaches, the ubiquitous bands of teenage newspaper sellers dream of a better life away from the hardship of the streets of New York City. These young men, and women, come together to fight the exploitation of the wealthy publishing tycoons who are callously hiking up the prices they pay for the papers they sell.
The realism is spot on. Morgan Large’s impressive scaffold set immerses us right into the heart of Manhattan. The grim fire escapes and sidewalks soon burst into the cacophonous chorus as the ‘Newsies’ come scampering from all corners of the auditorium to explode onto the stage in a glorious, rush hour frenzy. It seems they are celebrating their misfortunes. Indeed, lead player Jack Kelly (Michael Ahomka-Lindsay) is portrayed as having chosen his fate. Consequently Ahomka-Lindsay lacks the fire of the real life ‘Kid Blink’ on which the character is based. Kid Blink was not yet a teenager when he addressed over two thousand strikers to lead them in the battle against the publishers. Jack Kelly’s character replaces fire with charm and courage with charisma, throwing in a roving eye for the daughter of the enemy.
If the plot is sweetened somewhat (this is based on a Disney film after all), the execution is a sharp, exhilarating and sometimes overwhelming spectacle. Director Matt Cole’s choreography is both bombastic and balletic. Not always in tune with the subject matter, it nevertheless thrills us and coaxes us into repeated standing ovations – even before interval. The space is as wide as it is high and at one point the dancers even occupy the airspace during the stunning number “King of New York” at the opening of Act Two. The more plaintive ballads do not fare so well, with the lyrics occasionally getting lost in the cavernous auditorium. Likewise, the subtleties and subplots lose their way amidst the sheer, larger-than-life displays.
Bronté Barbé, as Katherine Plumber, a young reporter eager for a story, shadows Kelly in his fight for justice, spreading the word, assuaging his doubts and eventually becoming his ally. A touch two-dimensional to totally believe in the passion that spurs her on, Barbé has the requisite defiance to win us over. Newspaper tycoon, Joseph Pulitzer, is unavoidably a caricature but Cameron Blakely makes the best of the Scrooge-like bad guy turned good(ish). But it is clear that we are not required to dig deep into character or plot. That vein is thin. What really gets the blood flowing is the showmanship and the staging.
“Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground” is a piece of advice given to the strikers, “and you will win”. It’s no spoiler to reveal that they did indeed win. But these stunning triple-threat performers won our standing ovation too – even though they rarely kept their feet on the ground. They are the stars that we, the audience, keep our eyes on.
Reviewed on 13th December 2022
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Johan Persson
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