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Thursday, July 13, 2017 12:07 am

Legacy’s Newsies is dazzling, topical

A scene from Newsies, at the Legacy Theatre through July 23.
PHOTOS COURTESY LEGACY THEATRE

 

“Wrongs will be righted if we’re united. Let us seize the day!”

These words might sound more like fiery pro-union rhetoric than a lyric from a high-spirited musical romp. Turns out it’s both.

The production of the Disney musical Newsies, which opened this past weekend at the Legacy Theatre in Springfield, is one of only 12 regional versions of the Broadway hit to have been licensed nationwide. Directed by Legacy founder and executive director Scott Richardson, this edition of the musical – itself having been adapted from the 1992 film – is hugely energetic and entertaining, with a game and likable cast of regional singing and dancing talent abetted by impressive production values, from colorful period costumes to towering, multilevel sets wheeled on and offstage with graceful precision.

One source of the production’s exceptional quality is certainly its choreography, provided by New York City-based Chaz Wolcott, who was part of the national touring company of Newsies and has appeared on So You Think You Can Dance. A true ringer if there ever was one, Wolcott has provided the cast with a range of energetic high-kicks, heroic precision-leaps and other acrobatic razzle-dazzle which permeate the show’s several production numbers and which had Friday’s opening night audience gasping and applauding spontaneously.

The story of Newsies is a partly fictionalized version of the real-life New York City newsboy strike of 1899, which saw the orphans and runaways who sold papers on the streets of the city standing up to unfair labor practices of New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer (played by Rich Beans) by forming an ad hoc union. (Spoiler alert: the kids won, setting the stage for future child labor law reforms.)

The first section of the play, which establishes the world inhabited by the newsies, is enjoyable and charming but things catch fire once the boys decide to unionize, a storyline that provides real stakes (including stylized baseball-bat beatdowns courtesy of Pulitzer’s anti-union thugs-for-hire) as well as some present day social relevance. It was almost impossible to watch this scrappy band of underdogs speak truth to power without being reminded of the anti-union rhetoric currently coming out of state government. In the play, then-New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt – played by Keith Wilson – appears onstage to lend his support to the upstart union cause, a blatant if amusing piece of fake news.

The lead role of heroic (if reluctant) newsie-union spokesman Jack Kelly is played by Owen Beans, amusingly squaring off against his father’s performance as publishing magnate Pulitzer. The younger Beans, who has performed extensively in theaters across the country, brings the right amount of scrappiness and likability to Jack, and the character’s burgeoning romance with plucky girl reporter Katherine Plumber (Devin Dinora) manages a few moments of genuine pathos amid the fireworks.

Newsies will continue its run at the Legacy Theatre, 101 E. Lawrence Avenue, through July 23. Visit http://www.atthelegacy.com/ for prices and showtimes.

Contact Scott Faingold at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com.

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