If you haven't yet heard of ‘Newsies’ (let alone watched the 2012 Broadway production on Disney+), it's kind of hard to explain the appeal of this peppy and thoroughly American musical. But imagine a cross between ‘Annie’, ‘Les Miserables’, and one of those elaborate gymnastic-based spectacles staged by communist countries and you're halfway there. And Troubadour Theatre's high-octane production captures all its vigorous spirit, sending its huge cast of plucky, rebellious paperboys tumbling and leaping across its mammoth stage as they stand up to the big bosses who are determined to grind them down.
The year is 1899, the place is New York, and the times are hardscrabble ones, where orphans must choose between fending for themselves, or living three to a bed in a rat-infested institution called The Refuge. Needless to say, this show's protagonists choose freedom, eking out a precarious living selling newspapers on the street. But when dastardly newspaper boss Joseph Pulitzer decides to eat into their meagre profits by raising the prices they must pay for each paper, the boys risk everything by going on strike.
It's a story that feels massively relevant at a time when half the UK's either on strike or wishing it was, but this is not the show for gritty social realism. Lead rabble-rouser Jack Kelly, played with spirit by Michael Ahomka-Lindsay, is easily this show's most complex character, as he wrestles with guilt about leading his mates into potential penury. His more thinly drawn love interest Katherine (Bronté Barbé) is a reporter from a rival paper who turns his protest into front-page news. And his right-hand men are with brothers Les (Nesim Adnan) and Davey (Ryan Kopel), who've got an actual home to go to, but still throw themselves into the fight.
‘Newsies’ was originally released as a 1992 movie, but it bombed, with critics expressing bafflement at its campy, earnest approach. It only hit its mark in 2012 when writer Harvey Fierstein ('Hairspray', 'Kinky Boots') took on the task of turning it into a stage show, adding a new love story and winning nightly standing ovations on Broadway. Fierstein's take on this story still isn't the most nuanced but that's not really the point here.
This is a family show that'll dazzle secondary schoolers (even if its gee whizz, perpetually upbeat cast won't remind them of any real-life boys they'd meet in Double Geography) and shake adults from their lethargy with its undeniable energy.
Matt Cole’s direction and choreography is a knockout: the billing as ‘immersive’ is a stretch, but there's something so thrilling about the way the sizeable cast stampede down the Troubadour's aisles, their feet making the seating stands vibrate and the audience's pulses race. Virtuoso displays of gymnastics bring an accomplished score by Alan Menken (composer of Disney's ‘The Little Mermaid’) to furious life: 'Seize the Day' is a feverishly catchy riot, performed in a wild tangle of tumbling bodies that feels like it should end Act Two (instead, more sombre, soulful number ‘Santa Fe’ does the hons).
‘Newsies’ is sometimes jarring for the way it turns a true story of suffering into Disneyfied escapism. It's a jolt to open the programme and see a picture of the real-life strikers: 12-year-olds in tattered clothes, starving on New York's streets. But it's also a reminder of why musicals inspired by stories of political struggle work so well (like ‘Les Miserables’, like ‘Kinky Boots’). ‘Newsies’ is a perfect example of how a hard-working, perfectly synchronised cast can be a rousing metaphor for collective action of a more real-world kind, thrillingly embodying the kind of change the world needs to see.