Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre – until 16 April 2023
Newsies, although based on a 1992 Disney live action movie that initially bombed at the box office, belongs to that small coterie of musicals that defies criticism. Paying customers love this show and story: there is something about Alan Menken’s bouncy, catchy tunes and the sight of more than a dozen athletic, waistcoated newsboys leaping tirelessly and unfeasibly high above a stage, that audiences just cannot get enough of. The original 2012 Broadway production, with a heavily revisionist book by Harvey Fierstein and buoyed up by a swaggering, star-making turn from Jeremy Jordan as chief agitator Jack Kelly, was initially intended to be a limited season but wound up extending repeatedly until it achieved an impressive 1000 performances.
This London premiere has already extended bookings until next spring and, if the ecstatic – verging on hysterical – first night reaction was any indication, it’ll be opening up ticket sales for beyond then fairly soon. One would imagine this was always the intention of principal producers Runaway Entertainment (in partnership with Disney Theatrical and a few others) who have clearly spared no expense in presenting this London Newsies.
This is one of the largest casts you’ll see on any current stage, backed up a decent-sized band on an environmental set that turns the hangar-like Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre into an atmospherically grimy, iron-girders-and-dirty-glass vision of 1899s New York that recalls the all-encompassing scenic designs John Napier used to create for the Lloyd Webber blockbusters and the RSC in the 1980s. It’s a real eyeful.
Size isn’t everything however and the question is… just how good actually IS Newsies? Well, I suspect your reaction to it may depend on what you want from a night of musical theatre. It was always a pretty simplistic take on actual historical events (a bunch of New York newspaper sellers declaring a strike after publishing magnate Joseph Pulitzer raised the price of their bundles of papers by ten cents in the summer of 1899) with a romantic subplot shoe-horned in… and a ton of dance breaks.
Probably wisely, director Matt Cole makes no attempt to find parallels with the newspaper sellers’ strike and this country’s ongoing industrial action problems. Owing to the sheer size of the venue, subtlety and nuance are pretty much non-existent, a problem exacerbated further by having many of the scenes performed so far upstage, mostly on a towering tenement block set piece, that it dwarfs the actors, making it impossible to connect with the characters.
The highly inconsistent sound design doesn’t help either, flattening all, save Simon Hale’s lush orchestrations, in it’s wake, and rendering most of the words unintelligible. During the dialogue scenes it’s often hard to tell who’s speaking yet still possible to note that some of the accents are a bit ropey, and during the choral sections the voices are frequently far too low in the mix. Mark Henderson’s lighting proves frustrating as well: while it’s often gloomily evocative of the mean streets of old New York, there are moments – particularly when the cast are racing all over the auditorium – that it feels over-chaotic and it’s hard to know where you should be looking.
Michael Ahomka-Lindsay captures hero Jack’s mixture of bravado and desperation, even projecting some vulnerability across the wide open spaces, and meets the rangy vocal demands of the role with assurance. Moya Angela, formerly one of the knockout replacements for Amber Riley in the West End Dreamgirls, has too little stage time as Medda, the vaudeville performer-manager who takes Jack and his rebellious crew under her wing, but exudes charisma and vocal firepower that hits right to the back of this massive venue. Bronté Barbé has a fabulous voice but, perhaps understandably, struggles to make coherent the poorly fleshed-out dramatic arc of the young journalist he falls for, being required to go from abrasive to yearning in a couple of indifferently written scenes.
If however, you’re here for the dance and prepared to look on this more as Newsies – The Arena Spectacular rather than a coherent musical where you’re expected to feel more than bedazzled wonder tinged with fatigue, then Cole’s dance-driven extravaganza is a triumph, and he has assembled a formidable, thrilling team of dancers. His choreography -sharp angles and clenched fists giving way to breathtakingly clean lines and acrobatic athleticism- may recall Christopher Gattelli’s Tony-winning contribution to the Broadway version which in turn homaged Kenny Ortega’s iconic work in the original film, but has a dynamism and vitality that sends an electric charge through the theatre. One can’t help but wish that the old adage “less is more” had occasionally been applied to the staging though: filling every spare corner of the space at every available opportunity with a couple of twirling, somersaulting “newsies” threatens to diminish the effect of the genuinely heart-stopping ‘Seize The Day’ massed company number that comes late in the first act.
Still, as these superb dancers/acrobats slice through the air like human dynamos, albeit astonishingly graceful ones, or congregate into a phalanx of youthful exuberance and sheer muscle power, it’s pretty hard not to be won over. There are several moments where all the elements cohere into unforgettable stage pictures, and then this Newsies really soars.