REVIEW | Despite being set in 1899 New York, ‘Newsies’ strikes close to home

July 10, 2017 - 10:43 AM
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Talented performers led by Gian Magdangal, all singing and dancing, fill the Globe Ampitheater stage with boundless energy and bravado.

It’s interesting how Disney’s “Newsies” plays so well in this day and age of fake news, rampant social injustice, and major corporations stepping on the common folk.

Based on the true event of the “Newsboy Strike of 1899,” the high-energy musical filled optimism tells the story of how big-time publisher Joseph Pulitzer raised the prices of distribution rates to sell more papers at the cost of the newspaper boys’ (called newsies) livelihood.

In return, the young leader of a group of newsies, Jack Kelly, instigates a strike to return the distribution rates back to their original price and to let Pulitzer and Randolph Hearst know that they should treat their employees better.

Originally produced by Disney for Broadway and based on Disney’s on movie musical that didn’t do too well at the box office, “Newsies” became a 2012 Broadway sensation known for its catchy songs and explosive dance numbers.

The Philippine production, staged by Globe Live and 9 Works Theatrical, brings out the big guns on the Globe Amphitheater at the BGC High Street.

The set is humongous, textured, and it moves. Ed Lacson’s stage design evokes the beginning of the industrial age with three-tiered platforms that are moved about to represent different settings and scenes throughout the play — a low-rise building, a theater, a town square, even a printing warehouse.

The newsies are played by a whole league of talented performers, all singing and dancing, and filling that stage with boundless energy and bravado.

For that alone, the show is already very impressive. The dance numbers, choreographed by PJ Rebullida, blend jazz with ballet and some urban steps, if I noticed it correctly, but also with a lot of gymnastics to create a true spectacle of youthfulness in full bloom.

Just a little spoiler, there’s a tap section that is truly amazing and brought a huge smile to my face.

And theater can be enjoyed just for the theatrics — the dancing and the music and the stage design and lighting — and as long as the script flows and the emotions are clear, it’s worth the price of admission. But there’s magic in Disney’s “Newsies,” and this production that strikes home for us in this world we are currently living in.

At the very core of this play is a David-versus-Goliath story and it rings very true in our country today. Despite the use of American accents to properly portray New York at the turn of the century (some doing better than others, to be fair), there’s a Filipino-ness that is at play here.

The plight of the newsies strikes home. There are shades here of the street kids selling sampaguita and pranelas and the underprivileged who are buckling under the weight of rising prices. The play evokes the corporate machinery that insists on using contractual employment to avoid paying more for regularized employees. There is a call out to government officials who don’t regulate corporate greed at work.

At first, when the musical began, I was a little frightened that I wouldn’t enjoy it because it has a prosaic, literal quality to its writing. But it’s in that simplicity — and in the gusto of the performances that lead up to the climax — that elevates the emotional arc so when the newsies strike, I got goosebumps.

For this to have worked, Jack Kelly has to be engaging and has to draw you in. Gian Magdangal does this amazingly. I’ve heard many good things about him but this was my first time to see on stage and he’s a powerful presence. He’s never lost amongst the Newsies nor is he eaten up by that immense stage. And he acts when he sings, turning every note into a measured emotion. It’s quite an amazing performance.

The other standout is Danielle Chopin, who plays the young reporter, Katherine, who helps the newsies strike. Katherine comes in later on in the play but Danielle punches through and takes command of her spotlight. She becomes representative of the millennials who shine a light on the social injustices in the world and she’s filled with idealism and hope and bravado.

Katherine has a solo about covering the story of the strike called “Watch What Happens” and she’s all alone, the set has moved to close around her as she is in her office writing, but she never disappears. Instead, she burst through and despite having just appeared, Danielle Chopin’s energy is infectious. It actually made me feel hopeful and charged.

There is a lot going right for this Philippine production of “Newsies.” The dancing alone is worth coming to watch but director Robbie Guevarra and his team have struck gold here with a musical that truly energizes and brings hope to a chaotic and unfair world. Theater has that power and this production delivers it in droves. It has the Disney magic and it’s something the whole family should get to see.