Extra! Extra! Dancers, actors deliver for High Street musical

Cary Ginell reviews Newsies at HSAC

The concept of rabble-rousing street urchins dancing up a storm is nothing new on Broadway. It worked in “Oliver!” “Annie” and “Matilda,” so when Disney Theatrical Productions decided to launch a stage musical based on its 1992 live action film, “Newsies,” anticipation was high.

When the show debuted in 2011, it delivered an exceptional score and vibrant dancing that helped overcome its flawed book and cardboard cutout characters. The musical is now onstage at High Street Arts Center in Moorpark.

“Newsies” is based on an actual 1899 strike waged against Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, whose afternoon newspapers were sold on the streets by an army of boys, mostly children of poor immigrants, who paid the World 50 cents for a hundred “papes” and then sold them for a meager profit. The strike all but paralyzed the New York newspaper industry, with the newsies forcing a compromise that is viewed as a David vs. Goliath triumph representing the birth of the labor movement in America.

High Street’s production is thrilling when it relies on choreographer Christopher Mahr’s innovative ensemble dance sequences, which has the newsies tumbling, pirouetting and leaping furiously for most of the show.

The tuneful score, composed by longtime Disney stalwarts Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, contains typically idealistic, fist-in-the-air production numbers, such as the sensational, tap-dancing spectacle “King of New York” and the show’s signature song, “Seize the Day,” in which Mahr includes a nifty unison slide step that brought roars from the audience.

The show features an impressive, believable performance by Joey Langford as the newsies’ charismatic leader, Jack Kelly, with Rebecca Curci playing his love interest, Katherine Plumber, an ambitious young reporter looking for a scoop. Curci’s highlight is her patter song, “Watch What Happens,” which she delivers skillfully without appearing rushed. Sisters Bridget and Tate Hunzeker were audience favorites, with Bridget stealing her scenes as the precocious Les and Tate twirling and tumbling as Albert. Both sisters are used to working together, having appeared together in last year’s High Street production of “The Sound of Music.”

Other key newsie roles are effectively played by Jack Cleary (Crutchie) and Eric Schultz (Davey) while Eddie Speirs, looking like Shel Silverstein and using a convincing Irish brogue, was particularly menacing as the pape-shilling mug Wiesel.

As the miserly, vindictive Joseph Pulitzer, Will Carmichael goes against his good-guy type by playing a rat for a change (growing a meticulously cultivated beard for the part). Pulitzer is one of the more poorly written roles in the show (all he needs is a handlebar mustache to twirl) but Carmichael delivers with a marvelously sneering performance that makes one wonder how a prestigious literary award could ever have been named for this creep.

Without minimizing the overall excellent individual performances, the main attraction for “Newsies” is its athletic dance numbers and High Street’s production doesn’t disappoint, delivering with one thrilling sequence after another.

High Street audiences, however, are getting increasingly rude, shrieking and shouting as if they were watching an outdoor sporting event. Tone it down a little, folks.

High Street’s set and lighting design, both the work of Patrick Duffy, are always excellent, utilizing solid ladder-and-scaffolding construction (it wasn’t cheap). Costumers Barbara Mazeika and Taylor Capozzoli had plenty of newsboy hats on hand to top off the boys’ period costumes. Director Megan Rayzor, who’s set to give birth to a daughter in April, showed she was up to the “Newsies” challenge, delivering a seamless, effective production.

“Newsies” continues through Feb. 26 at High Street Arts Center, 45 E. High St., Moorpark. Go to HighStreetArtsCenter.com or call (805) 529-8700 for tickets,