'Newsies' review – the inspirational Disney musical has the most thrilling dancing in town

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Extra, extra! Read all about it! Disney musical Newsies, which began life as a notorious film flop starring Christian Bale and was miraculously reborn as a Tony-winning Broadway show, is finally making its UK premiere at the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre. Based on the real-life Newsboys’ Strike of 1899, its tale of unionising and campaigning for workers’ rights comes at a particularly apt time, as we see industrial action on multiple fronts.

That’s an added element to what is already a thrillingly immersive show, with the audience seated on three sides and the “newsies” (kids who sell newspapers) making great use of all the gangways and staircases. They’re constantly dashing into the crowd, either fleeing from the corrupt authorities or furthering their revolution - which kicks off when venal publisher Joseph Pulitzer unfairly raises the price of their bundles of papers in order to increase profits for himself.

Leading the strike is veteran newsie and natural leader Jack Kelly, played with a pitch-perfect combination of street-smart charisma and a vulnerable yearning to belong and be valued by rising star Michael Ahomka-Lindsay (also a standout in this summer’s Legally Blonde). Jack voices his dreams in the show’s breakout ballad “Santa Fe”, which Ahomka-Lindsay delivers with spine-tingling conviction.

The score, by Disney’s beloved composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman, is otherwise on the generic side, but its many stirring anthems (like “Carrying the Banner”, “The World Will Know”, “Seize the Day”) do the job of conveying a gathering storm. It’s a bit like a junior Les Mis. And while that musical was famously built on the barricades, Morgan Large’s monumental set revolves around a giant scaffolding structure that houses the newsies, evokes New York fire escapes, and opens out to reveal singer Medda’s club.

Not only that, but set pieces whoosh down from the ceiling or are whisked on by the dynamite ensemble, who turn every scene change into a mini dance number. As for the big numbers, director/choreographer Matt Cole (building on Mark Hummel’s original dance arrangements) has put together a simply jaw-dropping series of routines - the most propulsive, skilful and genuinely surprising that you’ll see anywhere this Christmas.

Cole uses an astonishing mix of styles and vocabulary on top of a classical base (à la Jerome Robbins) to convey the toughness of the newsies, but also their youthful enthusiasm: they’re still just kids at heart. Jump rope and leapfrog meet one-handed cartwheels, split leaps, jetés, breakdance moves like whirling windmills, even cheerleading stunts.

When they’re in the fight of their lives, they add kicks, stomps and punches too, and when they’re celebrating in the buoyant “King of New York”, we get glorious tap-dancing on tabletops and actual swinging from the light fixtures - aerial work to rival Cirque du Soleil. When the whole ensemble moves as one, it’s a force to be reckoned with, and a fantastic physical expression of the show’s themes: we are stronger together.

But I must just pick out one individual to praise. Mark Samaras, who has worked with Matthew Bourne and Crystal Pite, supplies almost otherworldly pirouettes - turn after glorious turn without moving an inch. He leads the seriously impressive balletic sections, but, like the whole fantastic company, adds cheeky rambunctiousness as well.

The scale of Cole’s numbers make phenomenal use of the cavernous Wembley Park Troubadour. The more intimate moments of the show are less well served here, and the lyrics often fall victim to an uneven sound balance and the sheer exuberance of the accompanying movement. But then the musical itself is better on generalised feeling than nuance, with Harvey Fierstein’s book telling this David and Goliath tale in big, bold brushstrokes.

The romance between Jack and pioneering, quick-witted female reporter Katherine is rather undercooked, but Ahomka-Lindsay and Bronté Barbé add heft to it, making it a real meeting of minds as well as hearts. Barbé also makes her solo number, where she wrestles with how best to write this important story (obviously, I felt seen), a real highlight thanks to her thoughtful character work and pristine, clearly projected vocals.

There’s also good work from Moya Angela as the brassy Medda, Matthew Buckett as Jack’s plucky pal Crutchie, Ryan Kobel as thoughtful newcomer Davey, and Cameron Blakely as a sharkish, steely Pulitzer. Plus it’s heartening to see the female ensemble given more to do in the second half.

Natalie Pryce’s striking period costumes should spark a rise in flat caps (if they ever went out of style post-Peaky Blinders), and Mark Henderson’s lighting directs our attention in this mighty arena and changes the mood superbly - from vast dramatic shafts of light to an evocative sequence with lanterns.

While this underdog tale doesn’t have the most sophisticated of narratives, I can absolutely see its themes resonating with audiences, particularly its inspiring message that the next generation of social justice warriors can change the world. We could do with that hope right now - and with a huge, spectacular show which proves, once and for all, that musical theatre is good for the soul. Seize the day and get your tickets while you can: Newsies is going to be hitting the headlines for all the right reasons.

Newsies is at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre through 16 April. Book Newsies tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Newsies at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre (Photo by Johan Persson)

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