Credit: Margot Schulman

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Before Christian Bale was Batman, before he was Dick Cheney, before he was Patrick Bateman, Christian Bale was Jack Kelly.

Let me explain, for the uninitiated: Bale launched his career playing the teenage heartthrob Jack Kelly in Newsies, a Disney movie musical based on the real-life story of young newspaper sellers who went on strike at the turn of the 20th century. He captured hormone-addled hearts while singing “Carrying the Banner,” “Seize the Day,” “Sante Fe” and other catchy earworms. 

Daniel J. Maldonado, the 20-something actor playing the role of Jack Kelly in the current Arena Stage production ofNewsies, doesn’t bring the same charisma to the role.

(I should admit here that at one adolescent slumber party, I made my friends declare themselves fans of either Bale or David Moscow, the actor who played Jack’s pal Davey Jacobs. I then directed all the Jack Kelly fans to sit on the opposite side of my parents’ living room.)

It would take more than 20 years for Disney Theatricals to turn the film into a Broadway musical. The first national tour came through Washington in 2015, and now that regional rights are available, Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith chose Newsies as this year’s holiday moneymaker. The pick marks a departure, since Smith has previously made a point of presenting what she calls, “gold standard” musicals around Christmas. Newsies is no Anything Goes, Fiddler on the Roof, or Oklahoma.  When Harvey Fierstein adapted the script for the stage—rearranging the songs, compositing some characters and ramping up the romance—Newsies lost much of its historical scope, suspenseful plot, and authentic charm. A good production can still win Newsies new fans, but subpar performances will disappoint movie loyalists. 

Which brings us to Maldonado being no Jack Kelly. Smith’s greatest error was ordering him to both speak and sing with a terribly exaggerated New York accent. Does Bale use one in the film? Yes, but come on: That was Christian Bale. Do not make a recent college grad try to play teenage Christian Bale. 

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Unbearably bad accents pop up throughout this Newsies like big, bold headlines. That includes disappointing vocal work from venerable D.C. actors like Edward Gero, playing a gravely German Joseph Pulitzer, and Thomas Adrian Simpson, playing Wiesel, the curmudgeonly Brooklyn newspaper vendor and Mr. Jacobi, the generic Eastern European café owner.

In the latter role, I would have much preferred to Bobby Smith, an older actor known around town for his tap dancing prowess. Like Bill Pullman in the film version, Bobby Smith could have cut a rug along with the boys in “King of New York.” As it stands, however, the Act II opener is a fantastic crowd pleaser. 

The dancing and Parker Esse’s choreography are the best thing about Arena Stage’s rendition of Newsies. The ensemble of “ragtag orphans and runaways” includes local tap dance prodigy Luke Spring, who made his Broadway debut in the 2013 holiday musical A Christmas Story. Now 16, Spring is a virtuoso who can tap on his tip-toes and clack his heels together in mid-air, earning a huge ovation when he takes a solo turn around the stage with a broom to clean up on applause. 

The ranks of actual teens at Arena Stage also include Ethan Van Slyke, who plays Davey. In both the film and musical, Davey and his brother Les drop out of school to “sell papes” after their father is injured at a factory. Their hardworking parents and washerwoman sister, Sarah, don’t appear in the stage musical, so the plot loses its heartwarming factor as well as the historical lesson of what tenement life looked like in 1899 Manhattan. Instead, 21st century laundry is strung up in the aisles at Arena Stage, and actors creatively enter and exit the theater. 

Although two decades old than her character, Erin Weaver musters the pluck to play Katherine, a gumshoe eager to bust out of the features section with her big scoop about the newsboys going on strike. Her cradle-robbing romance with a juvenile hall escapee has always been problematic (in the film, Jack falls for Sarah), but it’s especially awkward in this production, where Weaver and Maldonado lack chemistry and fail to connect harmonically in “Something to Believe In,” a new number Alan Menken and Jack Feldman wrote for the stage show. 

If there was ever a time to forgive flaws in a musical, however, it’s at Christmas, when theaters trot out their family-friendliest productions. Only the cruelest of capitalist hearts will fail to smile at this labor movement musical. But should there be a teenage girl or showtune-loving boy in your entourage, make sure there’s also a Newsies DVD or a Disney+ subscription under the tree. That way there’s more Christian Bale for all.

1101 6th St. SW. $51–$105. (202) 488-3300. arenastage.org.

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