“Newsies,” the spirited musical making its St. Louis debut at the Fox, has about as much to do with labor history as “Peter Pan” does with aviation.
No matter. Rose-colored glasses suit this musical’s positive attitude toward the past and (presumably) the future, when workers can get respect if they just stick together. Loosely based on a real event, the New York newsboys strike of 1899, and more directly on Disney’s 1992 musical movie of the same name, “Newsies” makes a bright new family show, good-hearted and thoroughly entertaining.
And you can’t beat the dancing.
Choreographer Christopher Gattelli won a 2012 Tony for “Newsies,” which comes packed with flashy routines for a chorus of adorable young men. (This is the first show I’ve seen in years that made girls in the audience squeal with joy.) If some numbers are reminiscent of “Riverdance,” why not? That strong, athletic style suits male dancers. And besides, many of those New York newsboys were probably Irish; in this show, their leader is even named Jack Kelly.
As Jack, Joey Barreiro boasts the sharp, cocky style of a streetwise charmer, stuck on a tenement rooftop but dreaming of life out West from the very first number, “Santa Fe.” (Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman, who shared the best score Tony for “Newsies,” retained the hits they first wrote for the screen.)
Jack is the most successful newsboy of all, a natural leader who keeps an eye on his friends.
They include a sweet, disabled kid, Crutchie (Zachary Sayle, very touching in his workhouse solo, “Letter from the Refuge”); and two naïve brothers, Davey (Stephen Michael Langton) and little Les (John Michael Pitera on Tuesday, alternating with Ethan Steiner).
They used to go to school but need to earn money; their father lost his job when he was injured at work. If he’d had a union to protect him, Davey wisely observes, their family could have coped.
Charismatic Jack and thoughtful Davey organize the newsboys after New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard, a deliciously suave villain) raises the price that newsboys must pay for a stack of papers.
They attract the attention of Katherine (charming Morgan Keene), a “girl reporter” sick of covering flower shows and reviewing musicals. Soon siding with the newsboys, she breaks a big story about child labor and nearly breaks Jack’s heart, too.
Have no fear: “Newsies,” too, is a musical. Katherine should know things will work out.
Harvey Fierstein, who adapted the movie for the stage, was smart to dream up Katherine. She enriches Jack’s life and widens the focus of the strike to include other working children. Director Jeff Calhoun keeps the pace of “Newsies” — appropriate for children but a full-length show — lively throughout, regularly showcasing bright numbers such as “Carrying the Banner” and “King of New York.”
And somebody — Calhoun? Or sound designer Ken Travis? — has made sure that every word is clear. What a plus.
Fierstein added one more touch: In this version, Jack is a talented artist. He paints stage backdrops for his motherly friend, entertainer Medda Larkin (big-voiced Aisha de Haas), and draws cartoons for himself.
One of them shows a man’s trouser leg, labeled “Pulitzer,” with a dollar sign on his spats. Beneath the sole of his shoe, dozens of workers struggle as they’re crushed to death.
Is it my imagination, or does Jack’s drawing echo the style of legendary editorial cartoonist Daniel R. Fitzpatrick? A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he spent 45 years at another Pulitzer paper — the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
When • Through Jan. 31; 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. Sundays, plus a 6:30 p.m. show Jan. 24 and a 1 p.m. show Jan. 28
Where • Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Boulevard
How much • $30-$95
More info • 314-534-1111; MetroTix.com