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‘Newsies’ dances its way back to South Florida with a charming leading man

Disney’s Newsies, an adrenaline-pumped musical set in a bygone era of the newspaper biz, has circled back to South Florida after its regional debut in Miami last February.

Running at Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center through Nov. 29, Newsies returns with some changes — a new leading man and leading lady, several others new to the cast — but Disney’s devotion to quality control pays off, as always. Visually dazzling, full of breathtaking (and Tony Award-winning) choreography and strong singing, the Jeff Calhoun-directed Newsies engagingly tells the story of a ragtag bunch of New York newsboys who bested bottom line-boosting publishing titans.

Based on the Newsboys Strike of 1899 (and on the 1992 cult hit movie musical Newsies), the show follows the fortunes of Jack Kelly (now played by University of Miami grad Joey Barreiro) and his fellow newspaper sellers, kids who are mostly impoverished, orphans or both.

Scrappy Jack has artistic talent — he paints backdrops for Bowery theater owner/diva Medda Larkin (Aisha de Haas) — and when he isn’t hawking “papes” on the street, he dreams in song (Santa Fe) of heading west for a simpler life.

When New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard) hikes the price the newsboys pay for 100 papers by a dime, the other newspaper moguls follow suit. The move doesn’t sit well with kids who are already living hand to mouth. So Jack and his dancing brethren go on strike, leading to the hiring of scabs, attempted bribery and violence. A fairytale it isn’t.

Book writer Harvey Fierstein gives Jack a love interest in the form of Katherine (Morgan Keene), a young reporter trying to break out of the women’s page story ghetto to write about more important things — like a strike. Though she’s initially resistant to Jack’s cheeky charm, she succumbs before long because, well, it’s musical theater.

Yes, the fact-based story has its share of cheesiness and clichés, but it also touches on serious subjects such as child labor and poverty. Mostly, though, Newsies aims to entertain and does so grandly. 

Christopher Gattelli’s choreography is, no exaggeration, spectacular. The show’s young male dancers are asked to tumble and flip and practically fly, and the stylish energy this bunch expends could light up Manhattan. The actors are also required to scramble (horizontally and vertically) all over Tobin Ost’s moveable steel grid cityscape set. Each guy can probably consume thousands of calories a day without gaining an ounce.

Barreiro, who graduated from UM in 2012, is a charismatic leading man whose rich voice communicates the yearning of Santa Fe and the burgeoning romance of Something to Believe In, Jack’s duet with Katherine. Even when he’s singing numbers from the Alan Menken-Jack Feldman score, the Miamian sounds New York born-and-raised. And though dancing isn’t something Jack does as much of as the other newsboys do, Barreiro echoes their athleticism.

Keene, who looks very pretty in Jess Goldstein’s colorful period costumes, is a performer with a sweet voice and the chops to pull off Katherine’s patter song Watch What Happens. Initially, her line readings are a little odd and mannered, but once Katherine becomes involved in covering the strike, Keene is more believable.

Among Jack’s newsboy crew, Zachary Sayle is memorable and moving as Crutchie, Stephen Michael Langton is an inspiring Davey, and young Ethan Steiner (who alternates in the role with John Michael Pitera) is a completely adorable scene stealer as Les, Davey’s brother and the littlest newsboy. 

Because of its higher-than-average proportion of young male cast members, Newsies has an ardent female tween and teen fan base (dubbed “fansies”). But whatever your age or gender, if you’re a fan of razzle-dazzle musical theater, Newsies delivers.