‘Newsies’ makes for a solid opening night in Memphis

Audiences who attended Newsies Tuesday night at the Orpheum were hyped and ready. Unlike four years ago, when the show first opened at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, the show’s acclaim has far preceded it. The Broadway version garnered a Tony nomination for star Jeremy Jordan, who played the role of Jack.

These are not easy shoes for the tour’s star Joey Barreiro to fill, but fill them he does. And quite well, at that. When the show opens we meet Jack, a paperboy harboring dreams of becoming an artist. He’s an orphan, and is living in his “penthouse”: the roof of an old building overlooking New York City. It might seem strange for Jack to begin the show with a number called “Santa Fe”, but the song sets the tone for exactly what Jack is trying to do: escape the life he’s in.

We meet Jack’s fellow newsies boys in the opening ensemble number “Carrying The Banner” with memorable names like Crutchie, Seitz and Swing. If there is one thing that can be said about the newsies boys it’s that they can tear apart some tough choreography. By the end of Act I’s ensemble number “Seize The Day”, the audience was in the palm of the boys’ hands. If you’re seeing Newsies for the first time expect to see sweat flying off the actors’ faces as they charge through cartwheels, tap dancing and jazz dancing. It’s exhilarating  to watch.

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On the first day we spend with Jack, he meets Davey (Stepehen Michael Langton), a boy unlike any of the Newsies: Davey has a family. Accompanying Davey is his little brother Les (John Pitera) who develops a soft spot for Jack. Compared to the thick Jersey accents of the other boys, Davey and Les come across as right proper and posh. But quickly a bond develops between Davey and Jack. As the very clear antagonist Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard) raises prices on newspapers and subsequently puts the newsies boys out of work, Jack and Davey develop a plan. They will go on a strike.

Along the way, Jack experiences many of the emotions you might expect to keep the show running: self-doubt, confusion and resentment. He also grabs himself a love interest in the form of Katherine (Morgan Keene). Katherine is a modern woman, perhaps a little too ahead of her time in 1899. Her career as a journalist is first, and flirting is second. But Jack pursues hard and doesn’t give up. By the end of Act 1, it’s clear what will develop.

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Despite the cliched romance and love interest, Keene handles her role well. She makes Katherine likable and believable and holds up well in a cast that is almost entirely male. Perhaps the most dazzling aspect of Newsies  is just how talented and young the cast is. The actors are incredibly athletic and well-trained in dance. Even more impressive is that not one of the boys fades into the background. As the show bulldozes through, every newsies boy gets a chance to show why you should pay attention to him on stage.

Make no mistake that this is a Disney produced musical, so it is family friendly. Opening night was almost sold out, and almost entirely young families. The show comes in close at three hours, but thanks to a lively cast the time goes by fast.

As the newsies go on strike, and Jack begins to find himself, the show really finds it’s footing. While many Broadway shows seem to lag midway through, Newsies just continues to pick up pace. “King of New York” led by Crutchie falls at the beginning of Act II and proves to be one of the show’s most memorable numbers. The boys never seem to lose steam, even as they kick and yell.

Newsies isn’t thought-provoking theatre, but it makes up for that with heart. Barreiro is an engaging and likable lead who makes a solid team with Langton. As the curtain closes, and all lose strings are tied, it’s clear that the touring version of Newsies is a well-oiled machine only getting stronger as the show goes on.

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