In 1992 the Disney film musical Newsies, based on a real 1899 newsboys strike in New York City and staring a young Christian Bale, opened to ugly reviews and soon proved to be a notorious box office disaster. By 2012 Newsies was revived for a theatrical production on Broadway that would be nominated for several Tony awards and ultimately win two.
On Friday the Argenta Community Theatre opened a production of the musical, which has shaken off its early bad reputation to become a show that has currency among hard-core theater types. Part of this attraction comes from the sturdy songs penned by Alan Menken and the way Newsies is a Broadway experience with training wheels for a host of youngsters wanting to demonstrate how they can sing, dance and act. Argenta’s army of triple-threats do just that.
Directed by Vince Insalaco, this Newsies doesn’t use the excuse of a smaller stage to cut back on the cast – the total is a whopping 32 performers, most of them high-school age and younger making up the core group of newsboys (and, in this case, newsgirls) who eventually go on strike when publisher Joseph Pulitzer (played nice and oily by James Norris) raises rates. Jimi Brewi’s stage design provides two levels for the numerous dance numbers choreographed sharply by Moriah Patterson. There are even a few chase sequences.
Newsies is not subtle storytelling. Jack Kelly (Will Porter), leader of the newsies crew, dreams of getting out of the city (“Santa Fe,” the opening number, sold well by Porter and his bright tenor), falls in love with a reporter with a secret (Annslee Clay is appealing as plucky Katherine Plumber) and fights with and eventually wins over Pulitzer. There is just enough humor to make the cheese (and the constant reference to newspapers as “papes”) go down.
Any cynicism one can muster is beaten by the sheer enthusiasm of the ensemble. Big numbers such as “Seize the Day” highlight a talented group of performers who clearly thrilled at the chance to showcase skills only beginning to emerge.
Newsies continues at 7:30 p.m. today Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Tuesday-March 9 at the theater, 405 Main St., North Little Rock. Ticket information is available by calling (501) 353-1443 or online at argentacommunitytheater.com.