Back in my earlier days on the movie beat, I was among a distinct minority of film critics who genuinely enjoyed “Newsies,” the 1992 Disney-produced musical flop that was resoundingly snubbed by reviewers and audiences alike.
Surprisingly, whether it was the rewritten script (by Harvey Fierstein) or the addition of a few new songs (music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman) – or maybe just a matter of changing times and tastes – the revamped 2012 Broadway version of the show became a huge hit.
I haven’t seen the movie “Newsies” since, but I stand by my favorable first impression of it – all the more so now, having experienced the rollicking rendition that’s currently on stage at Aurora Theatre. (It’s a co-production with Atlanta Lyric Theatre, which will remount the musical in October.)
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The show takes a page in history – the “unofficial” 1899 strike by New York’s newspaper delivery boys that eventually led to widespread reforms in the state’s child-labor laws – and then, with characteristic Disney spirit, simplifies the story in the interest of wholesome, crowd-pleasing entertainment.
Greg Kamp heads the cast as Jack Kelly, a streetwise orphan with a past, and an aspiring artist-turned-unlikely union organizer. Adrianna Trachell delivers a winning performance as the intrepid reporter who breaks his story, and also becomes his no-nonsense love interest.
In supporting roles: Marcello Audino excels, too, as Jack’s level-headed friend and fellow activist; Russell Alexander II does what he can with an excessively precious and maudlin part as another cohort, a poor crippled kid; Stephan Jones plays their foe, the publishing kingpin Joseph Pulitzer; Mahalia Jackson is a brassy nightclub singer; and Al Stilo has fun with his cameo as Teddy Roosevelt.
Ubiquitous director Justin Anderson brings his well-qualified style and skill to the production, reuniting with several of the same stellar designers who collaborated with him on last year’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and 2016’s “In the Heights.”
Scenic designer Shannon Robert strikingly evokes the Lower Manhattan neighborhood where much of the action unfolds. Maria Cristina Fuste’s lighting is by turns intricate and vivid. The flavorful period costumes are by Alan Yeong, the detailed projections by Milton D. Cordero.
Music director Ann-Carol Pence (on keyboards) leads a polished 10-piece band, performing more than a dozen songs. Highlights include Kemp’s recurring ballad “Santa Fe,” Trachell’s lively solo “Watch What Happens,” their lovely duet “Something to Believe In,” and the exuberant ensemble numbers “Seize the Day,” “King of New York” and “Once and For All.”
And the ever-industrious choreographer Ricardo Aponte really outdoes himself here, staging a handful of elaborate show-stopping dance routines that are alternately flashy and bold, acrobatic and balletic – sensationally executed by his corps of newsies: Atarius Armstrong, Luke Badura, Aaron Carter, Kevin Dakake, Christopher De’Angelo, Zach Gamet, Sterling McClary and Joseph Pendergrast.
Like Kamp, some of them look to be rather overgrown and long in the tooth to truly pass for teenage ragamuffins, and some lay it on a bit thickly with their New Yauk dialects. But why quibble, when there's so much else about "Newsies" that's so terrific? At the very least, after all these years, finally realizing that perhaps I wasn't totally off-base with that old movie review might have been enough of a reward.
Through Sept. 2. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 10 a.m. Tuesdays (July 31 and Aug. 7 only). $30-$65. Aurora Theatre, 128 E. Pike St., Lawrenceville. 678-226-6222. www.auroratheatre.com.
Bottom line: An exhilarating good time.
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