Review: “Newsies” at Cultural Arts Playhouse

Sydnee LaBuda as Katherine and Company

“Write what you know…” female protagonist Katherine sings to herself as she struggles to put the story of a newsboys strike to paper. The musical number is just one personal meta experience I’ve encountered when reviewing productions of “Newsies”. As Katherine takes notes in a box at a Bowery theater, I can’t help but chuckle at the duality of reviewing a show as the character also reviews a show. Don’t worry – this anecdote is going somewhere, I promise.

Despite being a period piece, “Newsies” remains a timeless story where anyone could find a news clipping of their front-page story within. A number of audience members may have encountered a sinister employer – like Joseph Pulitzer – at some point in time. Some may have even taken a stand against corrupt treatment of their fellow workers like Jack Kelly. Ultimately, Newsies continues to be a worthwhile musical with an inspiring, relevant message to stage in 2022. The cast and production team at Cultural Arts Playhouse bring that message to life – knocking the show out of Washington Park – home of the Brooklyn Superbas in 1899.

“Look What’s Begun…”

Many musical productions hint at what is in store for the evening in the first scene. The best composers, lyricists, and writers put a great deal of thought into this first step into the world they’ve carved out. Harvey Fierstein’s book begins with two orphaned, homeless young men on a balcony in New York City. Alan Menken’s score fills the space with warm underscoring – almost akin to the first scene of Annie. However, instead of trumpets blowing out the tune of “Tomorrow,” “Newsies” trumpets quietly play a few humble bars of Act I showstopper “Seize the Day.” Here, we find Jack Kelly and Crutchie, played by Nick Ticali and Daniel Bae, respectively.

Mr. Ticali commands the stage from the first moment he appears. There is no other reality for the actor beyond the world his character inhabits as he tells his friend about his dream of living in Santa Fe. Every gesture, every alteration of his speech is deliberate and effective. He brings humanity and vulnerability to Jack Kelly like no actor I’ve seen – aside from Jeremy Jordan, who originated the role at Papermill Playhouse and eventually on Broadway in 2012. Between his soaring tenor, comedic charm, and the explosion of emotion that is the Act I finale “Santa Fe,” Mr. Ticali gives a truly unforgettable performance.

Nick Ticali as Jack Kelly

Kings of the Stage (and New York!)

With that being said, the bar is set incredibly high less than 10 minutes into the production – co-directed by Jojo Minasi and Tony Frangipane. Fortunately, these Newsies are a limber bunch and reach that bar with ease – literally. “Carrying the Banner” is a high-octane eruption of memorable choreography and dynamic vocals, providing a look into the day to day lives of these Bowery boys. Moving like a well-oiled machine, the ensemble of Newsies executes each jump, pirouette, and occasional backflip with gusto. They were certainly in good hands with the gifted Mr. Minasi doubling as choreographer.

Each Newsie successfully fleshes out their own character while also uniting to form a cohesive ensemble. Crutchie is the most developed Newsie in the pack – aside from Jack – but Mr. Bae delves even further than many actors might, resulting in a nuanced portrayal of the character. He maintains the sweet-natured and innocent persona established by Mr. Fierstein’s book – cemented on Broadway and a filmed recording by Andrew Keenan-Bolger. However, Mr. Bae also looks beyond the disabled boy’s exterior and explores his inner battle between hope and surrendering to a system meant to crush people like Crutchie. His moment of catharsis comes with “Letter From the Refuge” – a wonderful post-Broadway addition to the show that follows the character to the juvenile prison where he writes an emotional letter to Jack.

“Once They’re Center Stage, You Watch What Happens”

The plot aligns with the cult-classic film it was adapted from with a few changes. The biggest – and most welcomed – modification is the addition of New York Sun reporter Katherine Plumber. Sydnee LaBuda, a prolific presence at CAP over the years, radiates with charm in the role. I last saw Ms. LaBuda in the theater’s production of “Matilda” in 2020 where she brought audiences to tears with her vivacious comedic turn as Mrs. Wormwood. Here, she utilizes her brilliant comedic timing and portrays the feisty reporter with finesse. Additionally, Ms. LaBuda’s softer moments as the romantic ingenue showcase her wide range as an actress – with a beautiful voice and dancing chops to boot.

The roles of Davey and Les – two middle-class siblings taking up work as Newsies after their father is injured – are also well cast. Anthony Orellana is perfect for the straight-man counterpart to the mischievous and flirtatious Jack. He impresses with his exquisite vocal talents – particularly in “Seize the Day” – and manages to keep the character likeable. The character could easily be grating as a wet-mop in the wrong hands, but Mr. Orellana delivers an endearing performance. Meanwhile, Ryan Mundy is equally endearing as Davey’s young brother. In the wrong hands, again, the character could take an insufferably cutesy turn, but Mr. Mundy plays the role with just the right balance of innocence and spunk.

“…We’ve Got News For You”

Almost every lead and supporting role is double cast or possesses an understudy. I had the pleasure of seeing CAP’s very own Bruce Grossman as the villainous Joseph Pulitzer. While the role is arguably underdeveloped, Mr. Grossman makes up for that with his natural charisma. He embodies the metaphorical mustache twirling media titan and core antagonist successfully – providing the Newsies with a worthy adversary. However, I wish I could have seen more of him as he disappears for a significant length of time. Still, Mr. Grossman creates a memorable performance and it was delight to hear his well-trained, pleasant voice fill the theatre in “The Bottom Line.”

There really are no weak links in this cast. Taneisha Corbin is delightful, as always, as Bowery theatre owner and performer Medda Larkin. Her magnetism as a performer is on full display in the bantering number “That’s Rich.” It was also wonderful to see an array of talented character actors from across the Island, taking up various ensemble roles. Joe Thomas was a standout at the tail end of the musical as Teddy Roosevelt – saucily putting Pulitzer in his place. However, I do wish his suit was period appropriate.

“The Bottom Line”

Overall, “Newsies” is a musical ride of non-stop entertainment with its electric dance numbers, engaging characters, and a peppy Alan Menken score. Beyond that, however, is an inspirational message about standing up for what is right in the face of overwhelming money and power. With three performances remaining, highly consider heading over to CAP this weekend to see a fantastic night or afternoon of theatre.

Visit CulturalArtsPlayhouse.com today for tickets and additional information!

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