There is a significant trend of turning movies into stage musicals: Elf, Kinky Boots, Rocky, Legally Blonde, Groundhog’s Day, Beetlejuice, and Pretty Woman are just a few titles in recent history. Each transformation can only be judged individually on how well the adaption works. Some work. Some don’t.
In the case of Disney’s Newsies, the music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, respectively, are phenomenal. Many of the songs are taken directly from the 1992 film of the same name. When the decision was made to convert the film into a stage musical, newer songs were added by the songwriting team, often to great effect.
However, the book by Harvey Fierstein, adapted from the screenplay by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White, is not quite as fluid or captivating. It results in show that, while entertaining and worth seeing, has an inconsistent ebb and flow.
For its mounting of the blockbuster musical, Paramount Theatre has put together a very talented creative team and strong cast that bring an exciting degree of energy to the stage.
Newsies premiered on Broadway in 2012 and recouped its $5 million initial investment in seven months. In other words, it’s a musical people want to see at least once.
Set in 1899, the story is inspired by a real-life labor walkout by New York newsboys who organized a city-wide strike when against newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer when he raises the price the newsboys are charged for their papers. Barely getting by as it is, the price bump threatened the newsboy’s very ability to support themselves.
In the fictionalized account of events in the musical, teenager Jack Kelly becomes the defacto leader of the newsboy’s union. Alex Prakken portrays Jack with confidence, cockiness, and charisma.
Jack is aided in the strike by his best friend Crutchie, a crippled newsboy played with stunning realism by Michael Kurowski. Also in the mix are by Davey – a reserved intellectual who gradually comes out of his shell to embrace his fellow newsies – and his younger brother Les.
Davey is well played by Doray Tarhan. The role of Les is double cast with Nathaniel Buescher and Daniel Font-Wilets. On press night Buescher provided an entertaining characterization, holding his own with the older newsboy cast members.
As Jack’s love interest Katherine Plumber, a young female reporter covering the strike, Justine Cameron is a delight. She has natural charm and a beautiful voice. Cameron and Prakken particularly stand out in their duet “Something to Believe in.”
In terms of ensemble numbers, “The World Will Know” is a vocal anthem that pumps the audience and the cast up in Act 1. In Act 2, “King of New York” features amazing tap dancing by the newsies – the highlight number of the production.
Located in the quiet suburb of Aurora, Paramount Theatre is an opulent venue that gives a true Broadway in Chicago experience without going into the city. The stage features high ceilings that are put to maximum effect by scenic designer William Boles who creates a stunning and realistic New York street corner for the performers to tell their tale from, complete with skyscrapers rising up as far as the eye can see.
Director Jim Corti does an excellent job bringing the story to life, within the limitations of the script. He has a keen ability to balance the stage and draw stirring performances out of his actors. Deserving particular praise is Corti’s decision to have scene changes performed by the actors within the context of the show, so there is never a stop in the action.
Choreographer Joshua Blake Carter definitely knows how to keep the action visually compelling, and the cast of young dancers effortless pull off the complex dance routines.
Music director/conductor Tom Vendafreddo is in his element with the Tony-winning score, blending the powerful voices of the actors with the sweeping flourishes of the orchestra.
Despite the limitations of the script, Newsies is an entertaining, and even inspirational musical. Many of the themes of the show are easily relatable to current societal trends.
A part of Paramount Theatre’s Broadway Series, Newsies plays Wednesdays at 1:30 PM and 7 PM, Thursdays at 7 PM, Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 3 PM and 8 PM, Sundays at 1 PM and 5:30 PM, through October 20. Paramount Theatre is located at 23 East Galena Blvd in downtown Aurora. For tickets visit ParamountAurora.com or call (630) 896-6666.
• Rikki Lee Travolta has headlined and directed theatrical productions around the country. He has written two novels and a memoir, all revolving around the entertainment world. He currently hosts a popular weekly radio program It’s Showtime with Rikki Lee on 101.5 FM. Rikki Lee also is the founder of It’s Showtime Theatre of Huntley and continues to serve on the Advisory Committee. He can next be seen in the film The Lurker opposite Scout Taylor-Compton and Michael Emery. For more information, visit www.RikkiLeeTravolta.com.