The journalism world evoked in Disney’s Newsies the Musical — impoverished newsboys peddling the papers of publishing tycoons on the mean streets of New York — is way retro in an era when all the news that’s fit to “print” shows up on your iPhone without being printed at all.
But the 2012 stage version of the 1992 cult fave movie, which begins a two-week run at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts at 8 p.m. Tuesday, has historical truth going for it as well as a slew of theatrical virtues. The latter include its Tony Award-winning score by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, high-flying (and Tony-winning) choreography by Christopher Gattelli, a David-beats-Goliath story from Harvey Fierstein, and the first blush of love between a scrappy, artistically inclined hero and the girl reporter covering a strike with personal implications.
When Newsies played Miami’s Arsht Center last February, different actors were in the leading roles of Jack Kelly, the leader of the 1899 newsboys’ strike against publishing mogul Joseph Pulitzer and his ilk, and Katherine Plumber, the bold reporter.
This time, Jack has South Florida connections. Joey Barreiro, who graduated from the University of Miami in the same year that Newsies opened on Broadway, has become just the fourth actor to star as Jack (the others are Jeremy Jordan, Corey Cott and Dan DeLuca). Director Jeff Calhoun says the part requires particular qualities, which Barreiro has in abundance.
“What a find he is!” Calhoun says. “It’s one of the hardest roles to cast. Jack has to be like a young Marlon Brando, with a sense of danger, and needs James Dean’s vulnerability. And he has to sing like a lark and drive the girls crazy.”
Newsies is known for its impossibly athletic young dancers, whose leaping, twirling, tumbling execution of Gattelli’s choreography becomes its own storytelling language. Barreiro’s Jack dances some but, Calhoun says, “because the other requirements for Jack are so demanding, we intentionally put more dance responsibility on the other newsies.”
For Barreiro, a magnet program voice student at Southwood Middle School and Coral Reef High School before he majored in theater at UM, landing the role of Jack has accelerated his career.
“I was musical director for a show in the Adirondacks when I got the call to come to New York and audition,” says Barreiro, 25, whose heritage is Puerto Rican and Cuban. “I saw all these tall, handsome white boys. I was the only mildly brown boy there.”
Growing up in Miami, Barreiro stubbornly refused to learn Spanish, a language many people assumed he spoke. Now, the language is on his list of things to add to his skill set, which includes playing piano (he taught himself) and composing music.
Heading the cast of a Disney musical he admires is his major focus at the moment, though. He makes sure to hydrate, get rest and not go out too often with his young cast mates, though the actors have planned a visit to Disney World during the show’s run in Tampa.
“The story is a great one about a classic underdog character,” the actor says. “People come in with the expectation of seeing the dancing, which is spectacular, but we have to make sure we’re really living as these characters. We have to make sure the audience leaves going, ‘Oh, wow!’ It’s a well-wrought show.”
Barreiro’s leading lady, Morgan Keene, is getting a career-building break, too. Keene, 18, who hasn’t been out of high school all that long, performed in the show’s ensemble and understudied the role of Katherine before winning the role for herself. The Newsies casting director became familiar with Keene’s talent when, at 16, she took a workshop with him and sang Katherine’s big, energetic song Watch What Happens for him. She and Barreiro took over their roles at the same time, and she’s a fan of her co-star.
“He’s really amazing,” she says — “very charismatic, strong and confident.”
Before she auditioned, Keene had never seen the film version of Newsies, which starred a young Christian Bale. Her character of Katherine is one that book writer Fierstein invented for the musical, giving Jack a love interest who also happens to be a strong female character.
“Katherine definitely has a lot of strength. She’s confident and spunky,” says Keene, who has taken advantage of Disney-supplied research and her own Google searches in building her character. “It was odd to see a female reporter at that time, and if you did, she wasn’t writing about anything important.”
When it was created at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse in 2011, Newsies wasn’t aimed at Broadway, but its enthusiastic fan base — they’re called “fansies” — helped propel it there. The show ran for more than 1,000 performances and continues to tour.
Though director Calhoun loved the experience of working with Menken and Fierstein, men he calls theatrical legends, the impact of Newsies wasn’t anything he took for granted.
“You’re always surprised when a show is successful,” he says. “But I knew it was special.”
If You Go
What: Disney’s ‘Newsies’ by Alan Menken, Jack Feldman and Harvey Fierstein.
Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 29 (additional matinee 2 p.m. Nov. 25, no evening show Nov. 29).
Cost: $30-$110 .
Information: 954-462-0222 or www.browardcenter.org.