When Toby’s Dinner Theatre set its 2018 season, the company had no way of knowing how topical its production of Disney’s “Newsies” would be by the time the musical opened, but in light of current events, a story about a group of outspoken teenagers standing up for themselves packs even more of a punch than it probably would normally.
Even outside the context of contemporary events, “Newsies” resonates with an audience because it has that right balance of high-stakes drama with the sense of plucky hopefulness you can get only from Disney, all set to music by the incomparable Alan Menken (“Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “Pocahontas,” etc.), and producing it offers the Toby’s company an opportunity to get lots of new talent on its stage. Artistic director Toby Orenstein and associate producer Mark Minnick, who collaborated on direction of the project, have created something really special with their version of this addition to the musical theater repertoire.
Inspired by the real-life newsboys strike of 1899, “Newsies” centers on charismatic teenager Jack Kelly (Matt Hirsh), who scrapes by on the streets of New York City by selling papers alongside fellow orphans and urchins. But when publishing mogul Joseph Pulitzer (Russell Sunday) decides to raise the price of papers at the newsboys’ expense, Kelly and his peers must stand up for themselves and go on strike.
It’s almost impossible not to get amped up for the strike when it’s all set to music, and songs like “The World Will Know” and “Seize the Day” (some of Alan Menken’s best and most underrated work) sound as good as they ever have thanks to the musical direction and orchestrations by Ross Scott Rawlings. The ensemble of newsies that carry the show never waver in their energy, even when Ilona Kessell’s upbeat choreography has them leaping and back-flipping over and over again.
None of the fun in “Newsies” would bear much merit, however, if we weren’t invested in the drama, and Orenstein and Minnick make sure that we definitely are. Hirsh is a well-cast protagonist, full of dreams and hurt and compassion and fear, all thinly veiled by a streetwise boldness that he needs to use to his advantage if he’s going to get what he wants. When he closes out the first act with a powerhouse performance of “Sante Fe,” in which he brokenheartedly reflects on his dreams of escaping his plight in New York, his dilemma is so palpable that it would be almost impossible for an audience member not to see a bit of themselves in Jack Kelly.
He’s up against the formidable Pulitzer, and Sunday is so scheming, egotistical, patronizing and cold that he is one those villains you just love to hate. Costumer Janine Sunday and scenic designer David Hopkins help further this standoff between villain and hero by giving visual life to their two worlds — Pulitzer’s office, with its posh décor and expensive business suits, presents a stark contrast against the grit and grime of the city streets, where the newsboys live on bare fire escape ladders and dress in rags and tatters.
Caught between these two sides is Katherine Plumber (MaryKate Brouillet), an intrepid young female journalist who realizes that her ability to truthfully and accurately tell the newsies’ story will determine not only the strike’s success in reaching the masses but also the future of her career as a reputable reporter. The character of Katherine risks easily becoming a plot device (maybe so Jack can have a love interest), but Brouillet makes her so believable, and her chemistry with Hirsh is so real, that we never question it. Her characterization is matched by her vocal prowess, and both are on full display in her song “Watch What Happens,” which she turns into a highlight of the first act by driving home just how high the stakes are for everyone involved.
Regular patrons of Toby’s Dinner Theatre will enjoy seeing what the company does with this contemporary favorite, and fans of “Newsies” will be pleased to be up close and part of the action, whether that’s during the lively musical numbers or during the more dramatic moments. Performances are seven days a week with matinee and evening options, and tickets are available at www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.