The Maltz Jupiter Theatre has demonstrated many, many times that it can produce a superlative show when it has worthy material. The harder task is to succeed with second-rate goods, but that is exactly what it is doing currently with its explosive, high-energy take on a so-so musical, Disney’s Newsies.
Yes, adaptor Harvey Fierstein made some substantial improvements to the story in the 1992 movie version of Newsies and Disney’s go-to composer Alan Menken has filled out the score he wrote (with lyricist Jack Feldman) for that live-action film musical. But even though the stage show ran more than two years on Broadway, it always seemed to be a triumph of rousing choreography and schmaltzy sentiment over quality writing. And so it is at the Maltz, where a scrappy, young cast is dancing its feet off executing choreographer Al Blackstone’s acrobatic steps. Expect to be standing at the curtain calls, as the audience at the performance I saw this weekend certainly was.
Newsies is a Disneyfied account of an 1899 citywide strike by a makeshift union of teenage newspaper hawkers against stingy Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World. It is a real-life David-versus-Goliath yarn and for its target audience of youngsters, it makes for a welcome, if simplified lesson in economics and labor law. The show, like the movie, is squarely on the side of the “rag-tag gang of ragamuffins” with management painted as the villain. It always seemed curious that this story was developed and produced by Disney, a company hardly known for an enlightened attitude towards its employees.
Heading these urchins is a firebrand named Jack Kelly (Broadway veteran John Arthur Greene) who opens the show with a traditional “want” song, crooning of his desire to escape his urban squalor and move to Santa Fe. Before he can, though, he must lead the newsies rebellion when Pulitzer increases the wholesale price they pay for the daily papers.
But since most musicals run on romance rather than labor disputes, Fierstein invents a love interest for Jack, a reporter – and occasional theater critic – named Katherine (Clara Cox), who happens to have connections in high places. Newsies is decidedly male-centric, but credit director Marcos Santana (who choreographed the Maltz’s superb Kiss Me Kate a couple of seasons ago) with adding a couple of female paperpersons to his cast.
With relatively little plot, Newsies spends a lot of time exploding into dance for its own exuberant sake. The ensemble executes a giddy, dizzying succession of leaps, cartwheels, tour jetés and other gravity-defying tricks devised by Blackstone to such brash production numbers as “Seize the Day” and “King of New York.”
Cox is commanding on a patter solo, “Watch What Happens,” and her voice blends nicely with Greene’s on a rooftop duet (“Something to Believe In”). Other standouts include Adante Carter as the spokesman behind Jack and adorable, tiny Blake McCall as his little brother. In addition, Joseph Dellger is a worthy adversary to the newsies as penny-pinching Pulitzer.
Zachary Borovay’s projections work overtime, setting scenes, displaying vintage photos of the actual paperboys as well as headlines and newsprint, all on tabloid screens. The set by Adam Koch is a curious array of catwalks and ladders – suggesting a newspaper assembly line? – but it does give the newsies something to climb on and clatter over.
As orphan musicals go, Newsies takes a distant third place to Annie and Oliver!, but that just means that the Maltz has to work a little harder to entertain us. Like a champion athlete with a handicap – albeit a self-inflicted one – the Jupiter troupe prevails, as it usually does.
NEWSIES, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Through Sunday, Dec. 17. $58 and up. 561-575-2223.