'Newsies': Theater Review

Deen van Meer
While it's hardly groundbreaking, this raucous musical has an infectious spirit that's impossible to deny

The touring cast of Disney's irrepressible Broadway hit is as emphatically entertaining as Alan Menken's score is energetic.

Audiences who saw Newsies in previews at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse in the fall of 2011 had few reasons to expect the show to be memorable. A flop film fed through the Disney corporate grinder would likely result in another mediocre musical, especially on the heels of commercial and critical failures like Tarzan and The Little Mermaid. Besides, a musical about a newspaper strike? Who reads newspapers anymore? And what’s a strike? If the WPA slept with Lerner and Loewe, their love child might be Newsies. But while it may sound like a terrible idea, if this irresistible concoction of familiar musical-theater tropes and jaunty tunes with a high-kicking, back-flipping, tap-dancing chorus doesn’t put a smile on your face, then nothing will.

In retrospect, given the cult fan base for Kenny Ortega’s 1992 movie starring Christian Bale, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when Newsies became a hit, selling over a million tickets in its 2½-year Broadway run and garnering two Tony Awards, one of them for Alan Menken's score.

Jeremy Jordan was coming off the anemically received Bonnie and Clyde when he got the call to play Jack Kelly, a scrappy street kid with enough gumption to take on publishing giant Joseph Pulitzer. Jordan was nominated for a Tony for his troubles, leaving Dan DeLuca with big shoes to fill in the touring cast. But fill them he does, rousing his gang of orphans and urchins with a smooth blend of moxie and charisma, and winning the girl with a dash of romance.

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That romance is embodied in the opening prologue atop production designer Tobin Ost’s versatile scaffolding set, which makes a convincing tenement. Jack sings "Santa Fe," a random and unexpected title to hear in the heart of an 1899 New York City ghetto, but one in which he pines for the open air, sunshine and the colors of sunset. By the time the song is reprised at the end of act one, we’ve learned that Jack is an artist when he’s not selling papers, the pressure of life in the city is no picnic and maybe a desert excursion would be just what he needs.

The opening ensemble number, “Carrying the Banner,” introduces us to the newsies, a hardscrabble bunch of lads cut from the same cloth as the Dead End kids, with names like Race, Specs, Finch and Mush. And when Menken’s big sound kicks in on songs like “Seize the Day” and “King of New York," the energy unleashed by Christopher Gattelli’s Tony-winning acrobatic choreography is contagious. Dance purists may sniff at some of the over-the-top moves, but the truth is the chorus numbers steal the show.

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While the boys dance themselves into a froth, their boss Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard) is upstairs raising the rate on what newsies will pay for their daily inventory. When they get wind of the added cost, the boys decide to form a union and strike, only they’re not sure how. With the comparatively scholarly advice of Davey (Jacob Kemp), and the help of plucky cub reporter Katherine (Stephanie Styles), Kelly assembles a brain trust to match the muscle of his masses in his crusade against the Goliaths of publishing.

Katherine is cast in the screwball comedy mold of an independent woman often ahead of the times. While romance is always of interest, getting the job done is priority number one. An upper-class, educated girl, she shares the virtue of determination with Jack, a runaway juvie. And Styles’ sharp, clear soprano suits Katherine perfectly in her solo, “Watch What Happens,” one of the score’s best songs. Her rooftop duet with Jack, "Something to Believe In," captures the hope and romance that Harvey Fierstein's book rightly emphasizes over the dour chronicling of a labor dispute.

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Director Jeff Calhoun seems equally at ease handling busy ensemble scenes as well as the show’s quieter moments. While his New York is not the city of today, nor is it the city of 1899. Instead, it's a cartoonish facsimile, from accents to outfits, a tone Calhoun consistently employs throughout.

Optimism combined with the fortitude to defy the odds and overcome scowling villains is the order of the night. It’s nothing groundbreaking, and nor is Menken’s score, comprised of catchy tunes accompanying Jack Feldman’s lyrics. Even with the benefit of a clever book and acrobatic dance moves, Newsies hardly amounts to a landmark musical-theater achievement. But it's a quintessential crowd-pleaser, and as such, it pleases immeasurably.

Cast: Dan DeLuca, Stephanie Styles, Steve Blanchard, Angela Grovey, Jacob Kemp, Zachary Sayle, Vincent Crocilla, Anthony Rosenthal, Mark Aldrich, Josh Assor, Evan Autio, Bill Bateman, Joshua Burrage, Kevin Carolan, DeMarius R. Copes, Benjamin Cook, Julian DeGuzman, Nico DeJesus, Sky Flaherty, Michael Gorman, Jon Hacker, Jeff Heimbrock, Stephen Hernandez, Meredith Inglesby, Molly Jobe, James Judy, Eric Jon Mahlum, Micahel Ryan, Jordan Samuels, Jack Sippel, Melissa Steadman Hart, Andrew Wilson, Chaz Wolcott

Director: Jeff Calhoun

Book: Harvey Fierstein, based on the screenplay by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White

Music: Alan Menken

Lyrics: Jack Feldman

Choreography: Christopher Gattelli

Set designer: Tobin Ost

Costume designer: Jess Goldstein

Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter

Sound designer: Ken Travis

Projection designer: Sven Ortel

Orchestrations: Danny Troob

Presented by Disney Theatrical Productions