A decade after premiering on Broadway, Disney’s Newsies has finally arrived in London! Based on the musical film of the same name, itself based on the newsboys’ strike of 1899, the musical remains timely and topical, what with the current cost of living crisis and strike action affecting numerous industries, from academia to public transport.
Rather than premiering in the West End, the creatives have opted for the more versatile Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre. Essentially, a gigantic black box studio, the space offers creatives plenty to play around with – and, oh, do they!
In fact, the show makes use of the entire space. There are two main tiers of seating, with a pathway in between them, and sets of seats at either side of the stage. There are pathways behind those seats that run all the way to the back of the theatre. Every single pathway is used, with actors walking past the audience as if we are merely members of the public in late 19th century New York City – and sometimes breaking into dance! It’s an immersive production that involves the audience in the action – some lucky audience members even get newspapers thrown at them.
The production is a spectacle, if ever there was one, embodying the evocative fire escapes of NYC flats. There is a gigantic piece of set, resembling scaffolding, which at first appears static but opens up and moves around on several occasions. Smaller pieces of set are rolled onstage, whilst others fall from the sky.
The musical features some of the most dazzling dance numbers you will ever see in theatre. Aesthetically, Newsies is dark, dull and dreary, which is contrasted with the majestic, colourful musical numbers.
The score is obviously brilliant – it’s Alan Menken! Menken’s best-known works include scores for other Disney films, such as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Pocahontas, as well as Little Shop of Horrors. Now, the score for Newsies is nothing on those musical masterpieces; there’s no ‘Part of Your World’, ‘A Whole New World’, or ‘Colors of the Wind’, no. But it is fun and groovy, nonetheless, and there are some real great music numbers, thanks, in large part, to the creative choreography and delightful dancing.
The overture is followed by ‘Santa Fe (Prologue)’, the lead character’s (Jack) theme song that is later repeated in full form. It is followed by the captivating ‘Carrying the Banner’, which is reprised twice and included in the ‘Finale’. The song has several false endings, each one receiving a roaring applause, but you’re never frustrated when it continued – if anything, you never want this catchy, anthemic banger to end!
The penultimate song of the first act is the wonderful ‘Seize the Day’, which is one of the musical’s best dance numbers. The audience was in awe; it’s rare for an audience to erupt into an applause quite like that. The act ends with a full-length version of ‘Santa Fe’.
As I’ve said before, a second act ought to begin strongly. Intervals are much-needed breaks that prevent audience members from feeling too restless, but they can have an adverse effect, in which you feel too rested. Therefore, a second act’s opening number needs to welcome audiences back into the action.
‘King of New York’ made sure every single member of the audience was ready for the rest of the story. It’s some of the best tap-dancing I’ve ever seen, rivalled only by 42nd Street and Anything Goes. I was reminded of ‘I love a Piano’, the tantalising tap-dancing number that opens the second act of White Christmas – it’s a wonderful reintroduction to the musical but it fails to compete with the mesmerising ‘Blue Skies’, which closes the first act.
However, ‘King of New York’ arguably outdoes ‘Seize the Day’, with (SPOILER) newsies latching on to lights dangling from above and swinging around the stage and even over the spectators in the side seats! I felt like I was at a circus. I was spellbound.
The rest of the score fails to match any of the aforementioned numbers, in terms of both scale and sound, but the well-written and superbly acted characters evoke sympathy from the audience; you cannot help but root for them, not only because they’re bravely fighting corruption and greed, but because they’re all so loveable.
Whilst Newsies was the making of Broadway sensation Jeremy Jordan, this new production is an ensemble-led affair, matching the story itself: “One for all and all for one,” sing the newsies in ‘Seize the Day’, as they come together to fight the tyrannic newspaper owner Joe Pulitzer.
That said, Michael Ahomka-Lindsay is a marvellous leading man; he excels as the jovial Jack Kelly. He previously starred in the UK tour of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the first show I saw in 2022, and more recently played the male lead in Legally Blonde at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. It’s wonderful to see him now be the lead.
The kindly Katherine Plumber is played by the breezy Bronté Barbé, best-known for playing the lead role in the original UK tour of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, before starring in fellow jukebox musical What’s New Pussycat? last year. She is everything a leading lady is supposed to be.
The mighty Moya Angela stars as the marvellous Medda Laekin. Angela was part of the original Broadway casts of Ghost and In Transit (the former had its world premiere in Manchester), before competing in the 11th season of America’s Got Talent, in which she reached the semi-finals. She’s got a pair of lungs on her!
The jerky Joe Pullitzer is played by the charismatic Cameron Blakeley, a veteran of musical theatre. Blakely is an incredibly versatile actor. He was part of the original UK casts of The Addams Family and Mrs. Doubtfire. I caught him in both UK tours of the former, the latter of which was earlier this year, before catching him in the European premiere of the latter in Manchester a few months back. The remarkable musical is now heading to the West End, with Blakeley reprising his delicious role – great news, but he’ll be missed in Newsies!
Newsies is a bombastic and balletic Broadway musical that was long overdue a London transfer. Whilst it is not in the wonderful West End, it’s inventive, immersive, and well worth the trip to Wembley.
Newsie‘s run at Troubadour Wembley Park has recently been extended to April 16 2023.