Now does seem like a good time to talk about the insidious Disneyfication of our culture.
Between the launch of Disney+ on Tuesday and next month’s Episode IX, The Rise of Profits, it’s hard not to see the Mouse’s white-gloved lack-of-fingerprints everywhere you look. Nowhere is this more true than at the theatre; current Broadway productions include Aladdin, The Lion King, and Frozen (Mary Poppins, you see, is back in London).
And here in D.C., we have Newsies — oh, excuse me: Disney’s Newsies, per the website of Arena Stage, where the show is going on until December 29. “A musical based on the Disney film” of the same name, it’s an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza designed, like most of Disney’s products, for the broadest possible appeal via the least possible offense. It’s a tale of child labor (and print circulation!) so defanged and anodyne it practically begs you to bring your own kids along.
It is painfully safe.
Now wait a minute, Tristan — you might object — this show has been around (and popular) for eight years. Some people like plucky, tap-dancing street urchins, you killjoy you, and what am I supposed to do, take my kids to Slave Play?
Fair enough, though you could get your Indomitable Orphans fix from Annie or Oliver. And if you’re craving a more recent musical for the under-18 set, I might recommend School of Rock or Matilda, where the children have more personality than these bucking-the-system paper boys.
Let’s see… There’s the feisty one who walks with crutch: They call him Crutchie (Joe Montoya). There’s a feisty one with glasses, known as Specs (Matthew Davies). And then there’s our man Jack (Daniel J. Maldonado), leader of the pack and also quite feisty. Such a colorful bunch.
The year is 1899, and Jack leads a newsie strike against Joseph Pulitzer (Edward Gero, not exactly nailing the Hungarian accent) after the newspaper tycoon raises the cost of doing business for New York’s hard-working preteens. Jack and his friends are helped along the way by a warm-hearted vaudeville performer (Nova Y. Payton), a proto-feminist reporter (Erin Weaver), and Teddy Roosevelt (Jamie Smithson) because why not. The arcs of this heroes vs. villains plotline are squarely predictable but also full of holes, my favorite of which is how the boys are so excited when their plight ends up on the front page of a newspaper — you know, one of ones they’re desperately trying to make sure nobody reads.
Director Molly Smith, who, during the post-show thank you’s on opening night struggled to pronounce some of her actors’ names, keeps things moving at a brisk pace. The dancing, with choreography by Parker Esse, really is quite choice, and Maldonado and Weaver have strong voices for their solos and duets.
But the wheels come off this production right away. It has no emotional depth, no genuine surprises, and no dramatic tension.
Its run has already been extended a week.