Tap dancing and turmoil1/6/2016
A critic has to be careful with the word “heartwarming,” a groaning cliché. But if ever a theater story deserved the compliment, it’s the one behind Broadway’s “Newsies.” For starters, the show is based on an extraordinary historical episode, an 1899 strike by New York newsboys. The street kids triumphed over the most powerful people in the business and set precedents for child labor laws.
On top of that, the Disney musical of 1992 was never intended for the stage. Granted, the movie had some humdinger tunes. Alan Menken, the composer, also gave us “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty & the Beast.” Still, a stage version required both more songs and more plot and would never have come about if not for the overwhelming demand — much of it from kids.
Also, the original production was well off Broadway, and only the fan furor brought it uptown. There, too, it succeeded beyond all expectation.
“Quite a story,” admitted Stephen Michael Langton, who plays Davey. “It’s like the Little Engine that Could.”
Central to that success has been the choreography of Christopher Gattelli, which copped a Tony award. Gattelli put together rambunctious sequences — with tabletop dancing and papers flying everywhere — in keeping with the flexibility of his young protagonists. Langton, at 24, is in the middle of the age-range for this cast (the youngest is 11), and he loves his tap routines, which draws on his early experience in Texas community theater.
Nonetheless, what Langton really admires about Gattelli’s numbers is the emotional depth. “You’re not just watching amazing gymnastic tricks,” he said. “The dancing is like dialogue. Every movement tells a story.”
Langton points out that the newsboys’ energy is rooted in desperation. What “Davey” earns puts food on his family’s table, and the same goes for the ringleader Jack, played on tour by Joey Barreiro. When Langton praises his lead, what impresses him most is the player’s intensity.
“He might be the rawest actor I’ve ever seen,” said Langton. “He really takes you into Jack’s turmoil, the way no one has before.”
So, too, the boys’ struggle lends humanity to the spectacular set. Three stories tall, with several moving parts, it brings old lower Manhattan onstage. Langton fondly calls it an “aluminum monster, ”and he’s in awe of the tech work involved. Again, though, he emphasizes the feelings in play.
“Each of us,” he said, “has a relationship with the set. Everyone has their own special place in there.”
That personal touch, he adds, enriches every song. On most nights, his favorite is “Seize the Day,” in which he feels “Menken really hit it out of the park.” More than that, Langton appreciates how the number begins as “one person voicing his fears” and then builds to chorus, as the plan to strike gathers momentum.
“That song embodies the spirit of the show,” said Langton. “The inspiring story at the heart.”
Overheard in the Lobby: On Jan. 8, the Playhouse launches “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” in the children’s theater. CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.