WHEN | WHERE Through Sept. 2, John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport
INFO $73 or $78 (Saturday evenings); 631-261-2900, engemantheater.com
BOTTOM LINE An exuberant cast makes you forget the flaws in this Disney musical.
In this age of screen-to-stage musicals, "Newsies" is remarkable because the movie it was based on was an out-and-out flop.
But thanks to video, the 1992 film starring Christian Bale developed a cult following, leading Disney to create a musical that ran for two years after its 2012 Broadway debut, winning Tonys for Alan Menken's score and Christopher Gattelli's choreography.
Now making its Long Island debut at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport, the musical is a rough retelling of the newsboys strike of 1899, a David-and-Goliath struggle pitting a ragtag bunch of tenement urchins against Joseph Pulitzer, the powerful publisher of the New York World. Facing declining circulation, he forces his young hawkers to pay more for their "papes" (period lingo), sparking a rebellion that ultimately led to revisions in the city's child labor laws.
The Engeman cast, under the fast-paced direction of Igor Goldin, will win you over with its inexhaustible energy and unbridled exuberance, managing to make you forget the flaws, some of which have been with the show all along. The closest thing to a memorable song is the celebratory "King of New York," and perhaps the amusing "Watch What Happens," in which Katherine, a character modeled on famed journalist Nellie Bly, sings of her writer's block. Much of the other music feels repetitious, not helped by a few too many reprises, and while Dan Tracy has more than enough charisma to sell his role as the newsboys' crusading leader Jack Kelly, vocally he struggles at times.
That can also be said for most of the men in the cast, clearly chosen primarily for their dance skill, which is considerable — a good thing since they rarely get a break from the relentlessly athletic (and again, repetitive) routines thrown at them by choreographer Sandalio Alvarez. Especially impressive is Nick Martinez as Crutchie, who has some cool moves despite having to manage them while maneuvering a crutch. Other highlights in the show (along with DT Willis' set and Kurt Alger's costumes) include Mike Cefalo, as the boy with the brains, Zachary Podair as his scene-stealing younger brother, and Whitney Winfield, in lovely voice as the spirited Katherine.
Of course, the most frightening man in "Newsies" is Pulitzer, played by Tom Lucca with enough menace to make me shudder just a bit (full disclosure: I used to work for his grandson). But he was a brilliant editor, and this musical could have used one.