It’s 1899, and the future is beckoning.
“There’s no escaping us, pal. We’re inevitable,” says one newspaper delivery boy to another in “Newsies,” which the Centenary Stage Company is currently presenting at the Sitnik Theatre in Hackettstown. They’re on strike, protesting low wages, and fully expecting to win.
“Wake up to the new century. The game’s changing,” says a young female reporter to the young strike leader, when he says he’s never heard of a woman writing news stories.
It’s best not to think too much about how little the world has changed in almost 12 decades since 1899: The gap between the rich and the poor is greater than ever, women are still fighting sexual harassment in the workplace, and the musical’s allegedly tough newspaper owner, Joseph Pulitzer, seems like a pussycat compared to the heartless bean counters who run newspapers today. There’s a sense throughout “Newsies” — which is based on a real-life story — that all the delivery boys have to do is win this fight, and it will all be smooth sailing from there, for everyone. That’s not exactly the way things worked out.
Put this out of your mind, though, and you’ll get swept up by the exhilarating energy of a musical that is designed to inspire.
This tale of triumphant underdogs is a bit of an underdog itself. “Newsies” did not do well when released as a Disney film in 1992. But when it was converted into a stage production (with new songs and re-writing by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman) at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn in 2011, and then when it was brought to Broadway the next year, it fared much better, both creatively and commercially.
The Centenary production— which features professional actors as well as college, high school, middle school and elementary school students— has effective leads in Jake Jackson as charismatic but reluctant strike leader Jack Kelley, and McKenzie Custin as plucky reporter (and Jack’s love interest) Katherine Plummer. Custin was particularly good on Katherine’s big, soul-searching solo number, “Watch What Happens.”
The large ensemble of actor-dancers also does a good job of cartwheeling and backflipping all around the stage, under the direction and choreography of Michael Blevins. One of the best things about “Newsies” is that it evokes the restless, scrappy, sometimes chaotic energy of youth.
While the actor-dancers executed the most challenging, athletically demanding moves perfectly, there was sometimes a lack of crispness to their more routine steps.
Another, more serious problem was the sound level of the eight-piece orchestra, which was placed on one side of the theater (where people would normally be sitting). The musicians were simply too loud, in relation to the actors, and ended up drowning out many words throughout the evening. (I was sitting fairly close to the orchestra, so that may have been part of the problem.).
Even with its flaws, though, this production puts an abundance of young talent on display, and that ends up being just as inspirational as the musical’s good-conquers-evil message.
The Centenary Stage Company presents “Newsies” at the Sitnik Theatre at the Lackland Performing Arts Center in Hackettstown, through Dec. 10. Visitcentenarystageco.org.