Unbridled zeal and nonstop zest propel "Newsies" in Hollywood. The North American tour of Alan Menken, Jack Feldman and Harvey Fierstein's adaptation of the 1992 film about the Manhattan newspaper boys' strike of 1899 sailed into the Pantages Theatre on Wednesday, and the walls may still be vibrating as you read this.
A shrewdly calculated blend of unapologetic sentiment, blank social statement and sheer moxie, "Newsies" was something of a surprise hit in 2012, though considering how its flop source material had become a cult item over the years, its crowd-pleasing stage success shouldn't really have been unexpected.
For the Record
March 30, 4 p.m.: A review in the March 28 Calendar section said that Ben Cook played the role of Crutchie in the March 26 performance of “Newsies” at the Pantages Theatre. Zachary Sayle played the role. Also, choreographer Christopher Gattelli’s name was misspelled as Gattell.
Not with Disney Theatricals producing within an inch of its budget, and that ace maneuverer of stage pictures Jeff Calhoun at the helm. The most significant aspect of this high-octane excursion is the energy expended not just by its tireless cast but by its all-out design scheme and brazen narrative formula, which is mirrored in turn by the reaction of its fans (more on that later).
So we get designer Tobin Ost's formidable original set, a many-tiered gridwork of tenements, strikingly lighted by Jeff Croiter, which shifts into various pictorial contours that fill out the Pantages stage as well as anything since "Wicked" last flew in.
Within, around and throughout that structure moves, to put it mildly, a passel of fresh-faced, scrappy young men, wearing their hearts on the sleeves of their ragtag costumes (designed by Jess Goldstein) and whirling through Christopher Gattell's breakneck, Tony-winning choreography as though their lives depended on it.
Which, in a way, they do, as these are the titular newspaper delivery boys, their motto "Headlines don't sell papes. Newsies sell papes." (The Bowery-inflected lingo at times foreshadows the "totes" and "adorbs" of today's Twitter generation.)
Their ringleader is Jack Kelly (charismatic Dan Deluca, a star on the rise), a surefire firebrand with an artistic side and a secret — in other words, our hero. Together with understated crony Davey (the affable Jacob Kemp), Kelly takes on publishing mogul Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard, doing his best with a papier-mache role) after he opts to lower his costs by charging the newsboys more for the papers they sell.
Kelly's efforts to learn about union organizing and pull his cronies into solidarity brings in burlesque queen Medda Larkin (big-voiced Angela Grovey); some broadly drawn heavies, including Pulitzer's inner circle (Mark Aldrich, Bill Bateman and Meredith Inglesby); and, critically, high-minded reporter Katherine (fervent Stephanie Styles), whose obvious love-interest function is tempered by her own secret.
There's even a late-inning deus ex machina from history (Kevin Carolan), a certain former Rough Rider who today can be seen on Mt. Rushmore.
But the main news is those newsies, whether it's bravely hobbled Crutchie (Benjamin Cook) or precocious urchin Les (Vincent Crocilla, alternating with Anthony Rosenthal), right down the cast list. Somersaulting, vaulting, pirouetting and tumbling, the ensemble gives the numbers enough unrelenting oomph to put every cheerleading squad in the country on high alert.
Menken's tunes and Feldman's lyrics, also Tony-winning, are perhaps more emphatic than memorable, but they serve the storytelling. Under James Dodgson's music direction, such anthems as "Seize the Day," "The World Will Know" and "Carrying the Banner" aren't exactly subtle in their aims, as opposed to Katherine's thoughtful "Watch What Happens," and the cast sells them full-out, with Act 2's "King of New York" a tap-happy showstopper.
Fierstein's book is similarly black and white, its Union Good, Establishment Bad scenario leaving little room for nuance. But then, that's not really the point here, and he does get some tickling zingers in at the media, politicos and such. True, Pulitzer would be more of a threat if his dialogue weren't so formulaic, and the narrative reversals retained from the film are hardly surprising, and that's probably for the best.
The audience at Wednesday's opening was clearly, vocally ready to love this show. A significant measure of high-pitched shrieks and squeals from the upper reaches of the venue indicates a large sector of any house will be young women, and the knowing laughter from all over the Pantages suggests that the film's cult following has followed it into the theater.
In short, "Newsies" is a critic-proof, resolutely entertaining, slightly exhausting romp, with a strong company and no end of technical flash. If it's more throwback than breakthrough, or if an air of the mechanical hovers around the entire enterprise, nothing this reviewer or anyone else says will matter an iota. Prepare to battle for tickets.
Where: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 19.
Tickets: Start at $25
Info: (800) 982-2787, www.hollywoodpantages.com
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes