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The final show in North Carolina Theatre's 2017-18 season is Disney's Newsies, based on the actual events surrounding a battle of wills between the World Newspaper and its street-urchin band of paper sellers on the streets of lower Manhattan. It is an exuberant and high-flying show that tells the tale from the street level, where the boys fight to keep their publisher, Joseph Pulitzer (yup, that Pulitzer) from hiking the price he charges the boys who distribute his publication.
The year is 1899. A trolley strike has gripped Manhattan for three weeks, causing a standstill on the streets and boring the public with a long chain of headlines. But in the posh, high-rise offices of The World newspaper, there is other trouble brewing. Publisher Joe Pulitzer presses his top staff to come up with yet another means of earning more money because sales are flat and things do not look good on "The Bottom Line" (Joe, Staff). Meantime, on the streets outside, the boys – and there are a lot of them - are scattered across Manhattan, returning to their homes, if they have them. Jack Kelly (Jason Gotay) and his best friend, Crutchie (Steve Raymond) sleep outside under the stars in Kelly's makeshift rooftop, where they dream of better times and open spaces in "Santa Fe," where Kelly longs to be.
Dawn brings the boys out, and they assemble to pick up their papers, touting the reason they're here in "Carrying the Banner." This is their first big number and the boys shine, with real style and enthusiasm. It has always been necessary for the boys to pay for their papers when they pick them up, at a penny a pair, or fifty cents per hundred. But today, the price has gone up, to sixty cents per hundred. The boys rebel, and Kelly, their unofficial leader, calls for a strike. But Specs says before they can strike, they gotta form a union ("The World Will Know"/Newsies).
The entirety of the show is carried out on "the street," which is bordered with slumlord high-rises and iron fire escapes. There are two three-level fire escapes on wheels, and the boys move them around the stage easily, allowing for a lot of action and some 3-D effects that excite. The show makes use of two spots, and they are highly effective, especially in scenes like Kelly's rooftop abode.
Another scene change takes us to Medda's Theater, where Jack sometimes paints backdrops. Turns out, he's a budding artist. There, hiding out from the thugs that Pulitzer has sent to find him, Kelly watches Medda's (Yolanda W. Rabun) revue ("That's Rich"/Medda). Up in the balcony, he meets a young lady reporter who is reviewing the show. He is smitten, and during a number onstage he sings about this new sensation he is having ("I Never Planned on You/Don't Come A-Knockin").
This tale is real, and there are a lot of actual people represented. Pulitzer, of course (Merwin Foard), is the man after which the famed award for literature is named. But there is also Snyder (Joel Rainey), who runs a shabby, city-funded "home" for boys that is more of a prison. He is paid per boy by the Mayor (Noah Daulton). But the real stunner is then-Governor Teddy Roosevelt (Bill Saunders), who is instrumental in bringing the show to a close.
The real battle for working-class kids is the front-and-center raison d'etre for this show. But that takes away nothing from the exceptionally athletic and exuberant dancing that is the central core of the numbers performed by the boys. In every case, their singing is clearly understood, exceptionally fine, and rich in color; yet even while they sing, they dance with superior grace and enthusiasm. Every single number brought spirited applause from this very appreciative audience.
Highlights included "The World Will Know," "Watch What Happens," and "Seize the Day." Acrobatic moves and even some superior tap dance in included, especially when Katherine Plumber, Kelly's love interest (Shannon O'Boyle), joins in, notably in "King of New York," the Act II opener. Kelly and Plumber are an electricity-generating duo, and their duets are show stoppers.
This is a spirited and dynamic work that entails some truly exceptional work from everyone concerned. The Dance is spectacular, the plotline is thrilling, the action is non-stop, and every single aspect of the show is designed to reach out and grab the viewer. This truly is an ensemble work, despite some to-die-for roles, like Plumber, Crutchie, and the one girl who is one of the boys, Tommy Boy (Caylie Rose Newcom). The historical reality only adds to the drama, and we root for the Newsies, even though we know the ending. The dynamic plotline is true-to-life, and is moved along grandly by these songs. There is real conflict here, deadly conflict that inflicts pain as well as triumph.
Newsies is a tremendous musical, a real grabber, and these song-and-dance young people bring it off like gangbusters. This a fine, theatrical performance that is well worth your time. Spend an evening in the air-conditioning, duck the summer heat, and enjoy an exceptional work by these fine young actors. Newsies is BIG.
And it continues through 7/29. For details, see the sidebar.