Like the newsies who hawked broadsheets on the sidewalks of New York City for a penny apiece in 1899, Disney’s “Newsies” knows exactly what’s expected of it.
Here’s what it’s got to sell: A group of scrappy boys in jaunty caps and tailored vests with can-do attitudes and Brooklynesque accents who can tap dance and back-flip their way directly into your heart.
On that score, which in the middlebrow territory Disney has staked out for itself on Broadway is pretty much the only one that counts, the national tour of “Newsies” that opened Tuesday night in Shea’s Performing Arts Center delivers with moxie to spare.
The show, ostensibly about the New York City newsies – newspaper boys – strike of 1899, is really a string of big dance numbers with the shadow of a narrative and a ballad thrown in every so often to let the cast catch its breath. If you calibrate your expectations to the level established by the 1992 movie on which the show is based, you’re in for a great time.
Which is to say: Christopher Gattelli’s inventive choreography, somehow muscular and lithe at once, is a joy to watch in the hands of this gifted young cast. The big numbers, “The World Will Know,” “Seize the Day” and the shameless yet irresistible tap extravaganza “King of New York,” are well worth sitting through the night’s few plodding points and throwaway songs.
In every respect other than its choreography and dance performances, which are superlative, “Newsies” is exceedingly competent. Though it drags in the second act, its book, by Harvey Fierstein (“La Cage Aux Folles,” “Kinky Boots”) is as smart as could be hoped and more efficient than most breaking news stories getting its point across. Alan Menken’s score and Jack Feldman’s lyrics are never less than thoughtfully considered, each song a keen but not over-obvious pastiche that rarely draws attention to itself over the dancing.
Fierstein’s book, echoing “Oliver” whenever possible, takes us swiftly through the utterly predictable narrative of the newsies strike. It starts when Joseph Pulitzer, played here with Disney-brand menace by the excellent Steve Blanchard, tries to juice his newspaper’s declining circulation numbers by putting the squeeze on his newsies. This doesn’t go over well on the streets or with head newsie Jack Kelly (Dan Deluca), who whips up his “rag-tag gang of ragamuffins” to “take on the kingmakers of New York.”
Those bits of salty prose are the invention of young journalist Katherine (Stephanie Styles), who doubles as a foil for her powerful father and a love interest for the artistically inclined Jack, who throughout the entire show is aching to escape from a rough-and-tumble life on the streets to the imaginary version of Santa Fe he carries in his head.
All the lovey-dovey stuff is destined to make eyes roll, both in the tween target demographic and the adult also-rans, but it provides a decent counterpoint to the breathless activity that accounts for most of the production.
As Jack Kelly, Deluca is thoroughly convincing as a young union leader with stars in his eyes. The same can’t quite be said for Styles, who sings marvelously to her typewriter on “Watch What Happens” but too often comes across as mechanical in other scenes.
As the burlesque performer Medda Larkin – because why not toss in a wise, advice-dispensing burlesque dancer? – Angela Grovey gives a performance of perfectly calibrated sass and sagacity on “That’s Rich.”
But the real star of the show is the ensemble of irrepressible newsies. Like the young workers who inspired the production by organizing themselves against a common enemy, these dancers earn every dime they have coming to them.
When: Through Sunday
Where: Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.
Tickets: $35 to $75
Info: 847-0850 or sheas.org