Disney originally had modest aspirations for this stage version of its 1992 live-action movie musical about a scruffy band of newspaper hawkers who go on strike against a publishing titan in turn-of-the-20th-century New York. It did not set its sights on Broadway until the positive press for its 2011 premiere at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. One can see, though, why executives were initially hesitant: The show by composer Alan Menken, lyricist Jack Feldman and book writer Harvey Fierstein exudes old-school corniness. Its anthem — “One for all, and all for one,” goes the lyric in “Seize the Day” — is catchy, but much of the score retains the flavor of summer stock.
Arena’s version — its first alliance with a Disney product — moves with the efficiency of a bullet train. The performers are all impressively well-versed in how to put this material across, and a few, such as Erin Weaver as a feisty reporter who champions the Newsies’ cause, master the art of coloring within the lines of thin characters. As Davey, a middle-class teen forced to take a job selling “papes” after his father loses his job, Ethan Van Slyke evinces poise and song-and-dance charm; he’s an actor to look out for. And Josiah Smothers, as Davey’s little brother Les, is such an effortless comic sidekick that you can envision the agents lining up at the Fichandler stage door. (Hazel Hay plays Les in some performances.)
The mechanics of “Newsies” mirror the film version, for which many tweens of the early ’90s developed a crush. They can now bring their own tweeners to the show.
Still, one thematic thread of “Newsies” stands out as of-the-moment. That is the confrontation that “Newsies” elucidates, based on an actual 1899 newsboys’ strike, between the all-but-destitute boys and Joseph Pulitzer, the industry magnate played to a haughty fare-thee-well by Edward Gero.
With the current ire being stoked against America’s billionaire class, “Newsies” has a new point of reference for worker resentments in its depiction of us vs. them. Pulitzer, proprietor of the powerful New York World, mercilessly seeks to wring more profit out of the boys (and a few girls), led by Daniel J. Maldonado’s vibrant Jack Kelly: He callously raises the cost to them of buying the papers they have to sell. The heartlessness of the rich could not be more manifest than in the Dickensian visage of Crutchie (Joe Montoya), a newsboy with a useless leg, who’s beaten by the magnate’s thugs and thrown into rat-infested detention.
If the story has contemporary resonance, the score, alas, does not. The mediocre songs, for the most part, conjure wan memories of Tin Pan Alley, and the dialogue scenes wallow in cheap sentiment. “Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground!” says New York Gov. Teddy Roosevelt (Jamie Smithson) in one of the musical’s final moments. Roosevelt may actually have used words like these, but in “Newsies” they are reduced to greeting-card cliches.
So it is left to Esse to save the evening, and in the production numbers designed for a dynamic chorus, he pretty much manages to do that. Ken MacDonald’s set for the Fich is essentially a dance floor with a few incidental furnishings and ladders to accommodate agile performers who execute terrific unison movement, along with solid spins and splits.
In tandem with Signature Theatre’s current revival of “A Chorus Line,” the region’s theatergoers are having their appetites sated for sharply danced musical theater. In that crucial kinetic sense, at least, Arena has put together a holiday offering that can be thought of as one for all.
Newsies, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, book by Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Molly Smith. Choreography, Parker Esse; music direction, Laura Bergquist; set, Ken MacDonald; costumes, Alejo Vietti; lighting, Kimberly Purtell; sound, Daniel Erdberg; orchestrations, Danny Troob. With Thomas Adrian Simpson, Nova Y. Payton. About 2 hours 40 minutes. $51-$133. Through Dec. 29 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.