Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre – until 16 April 2023
I love it when the theatre perfectly fits the show. Artists can overcome a wrong space, but there’s gleeful concord when it suits this well. The vast new hangar-like Troubadour uses all its height and industrial chic to convey New York 1899: fire-escapes, iron balconies, vast billboard for the Santa Fe railroad, walls all newsprint and windows and washing lines.
Morgan Large’s set is moody, monochrome, enlivened with pops of colour: a red apple, a woman’s bright hair, the apricot squares of twilight windows. It’s immersively Disney in a good way, and director-choreographer Matt Cole makes his acrobatic cast use every bit of the theatre: thundering up and down the stairs, appearing behind us, one swinging four feet from my head on a crane. Which, by the way, pleasingly means that whether you pay around £30 or around £90 for a seat you’ll get a splendid view .
It’s a show, indeed, where the ensemble are the star: quite right, since it’s about the strike by ragamuffin street kids who sold newspapers on the New York streets in the glory days of press barons like Pulitzer and Hearst. The Newsies, often living on the streets, sleeping in hammocks nicely slung under fire escapes, eked out a living collecting papers and selling them (there’s a lovely balletic evocation at the start of high-pressure selling to top-hatted or crinolined toffs, kids literally throwing themselves at the job).
The deal was buy 100 papers for 50c, no refunds for unsold copies. They wait anxiously for the morning’s headline to be a good one that will make people buy: one says that police sirens are like lullabies to him, because the more the sirens the bigger the story and the better he’ll eat next day.
But Joseph Pulitzer, Cameron Blakely doing a nicely cold-headed villain turn as his walnut desk and chandelier roll onto the bleak street scene, decided to trim for profit and raised the price to 60c. And in real life, the newsies rebelled.
It’s warm-hearted Disney, with Michael Ahomka-Lindsay as Jack Kelly the leader, supportive of his lame pal “Crutchie” (Matthew Duckett), supported himself by the friendship of Medda (Moya Angela) and her showgirls. He’s initially a bit wary of the newcomer who has an actual home, and his own emotional yearnings are about going West, young man, to Santa Fe for a better life. Like all of them he dreads being captured for the profit-making, rat-ridden “Refuge” which rounds up street kids. He falls for Katherine – Bronté Barbé – who is a young reporter who defies Pulitzer’s ban on reporting the strike and turns out to be actually his daughter, rebelling in her own way. She it is who persuades Jack – by this time flagging in his resolve, thinking of compromise and at odds with the strikers – that the way to win is to broaden the cause to “all the kids working in sweatshops, factories and slaughterhouses”.
Expect a pretty happy ending , complete with Governor Roosevelt shaming the baddies, but Harvey Fierstein’s book (he wrote La Cage aux Folles, remember) is honest enough about the processes of a strike: of hope and mistrust and despair and the difficulty of sticking together – “When you got a hundred voices singing, who can hear a whistle blow?”. But the pleasure’s in the energy, the wild dancing and swinging from lights, the moment the tap shoes come out, the ensemble glee of youth. The music by Alan Menkin is not quite hummable – except the Seize the Day anthem – but dramatically urgent; the lyrics by Jack Feldman are splendid, never flat or laboured, a reminder of why the HEX lyrics the other night didn’t quite work. All the singing is terrific.
And there are some great old NY-biz lines: from the kids’ glee at getting publicity – “Folks we finally got a headline! Above the fold!” to “The only thing worse than a hard heart is a soft head”as Pulitzer realizes that his interest is to settle.
I’d choose this over a panto this year for any kid with a rebel heart.
Box office Troubadour Wembley Park theatre, London, until 16 April