Newsies: Theater Review

Newsies Ensemble - H 2012
Deen van Meer

Newsies Ensemble - H 2012

After the commercial disappointments of “Tarzan” and “The Little Mermaid” on Broadway, Disney scores by keeping it simple, spirited and engagingly old-fashioned in this winning rethink of the 1992 movie.

Rousing songs by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, high-energy dance numbers, an appealing cast and an uplifting story make this reconceived version of the Christian Bale movie one of Disney Theatrical's most entertaining new properties in years.

NEW YORK -- Theater insiders are calling it the boys’ answer to Annie, and while that description might sound snarky, it’s not entirely off-base for Disney Theatrical’s crowd-pleasing stage adaptation of Newsies. Broadway clearly has an appetite for wholesome family entertainment, and the vocal audience response at previews indicates that the exhilarating melodies of Alan Menken’s score and the airborne bodies of the ensemble as they execute choreographer Christopher Gattelli’s athletic dance moves are hitting the spot. The thematic currency of scrappy underdogs taking on greedy powerbrokers doesn’t hurt either.

The show premiered last fall at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse and was conceived as a regional touring and licensing property until favorable response spurred Disney to announce a limited Broadway engagement through June 10. A two-month extension has been added prior to opening, based on hefty advance sales and strong early word.

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For a movie that was a costly commercial and critical failure for the studio, Kenny Ortega’s 1992 Newsies acquired a rabid fan following, mostly from cable and video. Even the public lack of love shown toward it by Christian Bale, who starred as rabblerousing Noo Yawk newsboy Jack Kelly, hasn’t soured the affection of the tykes and tweens who fell for the story back then and are now among those pumping stadium-level enthusiasm into the applause breaks of Broadway performances. Aficionados looking for art or subtlety in their musical theater might sniff, but for nonpurists, the show’s exuberant old-fashioned charms will be irresistible.

Adapted by Harvey Fierstein from Bob Tzudiker and Noni White’s screenplay, Newsies is a disarmingly guileless fictionalized spin on the 1899 New York City newsboys strike. Outfitted by costumer Jess Goldstein in jaunty caps, vests and knee breeches, these plucky kids scratch out a meager living selling “papes.” But they balk when Joseph Pulitzer (John Dossett), publisher of The New York World, bumps up their distribution price to increase profits, prompting the city’s other dailies to follow suit.

Led by 17-year-old juvie runaway Jack (Jeremy Jordan), the boys form an impromptu union and call a strike, inciting violent repercussions. But with help from Katherine (Kara Lindsay), a well-connected reporter, they unite the city boroughs and expose the exploitation of the oppressed to public and political scrutiny, giving them the upper hand in negotiations.

If this sounds like a rose-colored Occupy Wall Street fantasy, it more or less is, which is no small irony coming from the biggest corporate presence on Broadway. However, Fierstein’s straightforward book is concerned less with tapping into today’s debate about income inequality and worker injustice than with joining the dots of a classic boy-meets-girl-and-tackles-titan tale. Chief among many improvements on the movie is its strengthening of the love story.

As much as the material, however, it’s the attractive young cast and the high-energy physicality of Jeff Calhoun’s production that make the show so engaging. Jordan (recently of the short-lived Bonnie & Clyde) is a natural musical-theater star who brings effortless charisma to the role and an ideal blend of wise-guy attitude, innate leadership and romantic wistfulness. His yearning solo, “Santa Fe,” is a high point. He’s nicely matched with Lindsay, whose “Watch What Happens” is not a Bravo network promo jingle but a do-gooder empowerment number that places her firmly in the mold of feisty Disney princesses from Ariel onward.

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The boys – most of them orphans wid’ no mudder or fadder, and thus forced to woik – are a boisterous bunch of ragamuffins who play up the accents to cartoonish effect, which will either be adorable or annoying, depending on your mood. Some of the strapping lads look a bit beyond urchin age, but who cares? Making appealing impressions in key roles are Ben Fankhauser as Davey, the organizational brains to Jack’s brawn; Andrew Keenan-Bolger as limping but spirited Crutchie; and Matthew J. Schechter (alternating with Lewis Grosso) as Davey’s kid brother, whose moxie is in inverse proportion to his size. And while Gattelli’s balletic acrobatics show more propulsion than range, the male ensemble attacks every flying pirouette and gravity-defying flip with infectious gusto.

Of the adult roles, Dossett’s Pulitzer is a stock white-collar villain, though he gets the job done, and Capathia Jenkins injects brassy maternal warmth as queen of a Bowery vaudeville house, sashaying through the amusing “That’s Rich.”

Nimbly staged by Calhoun on designer Tobin Ost’s terrifically versatile and constantly reconfigured three-tiered Erector Set structure – with details sketched in via Sven Ortel’s projections – the show never lags. That’s also thanks to the galvanizing songs by Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman.

Of the three numbers added since New Jersey, the most significant upgrade is Katherine and Jack’s duet, “Something to Believe In,” which cements their bond and the shared determination of their endeavor with an enjoyably cheesy pop sound. But it’s the catchy holdover anthems from the movie (and their countless reprises) that drive the musical’s soaring spirit, among them “Carrying the Banner,” “The World Will Know,” “Seize the Day” and “King of New York.”

You can call the show brashly formulaic, sentimental or simplistic, but Newsies adheres to a time-honored Disney tradition of inspirational storytelling in the best possible sense. It woiks.

Venue: Nederlander Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Jeremy Jordan, John Dossett, Kara Lindsay, Capathia Jenkins, Ben Fankhauser, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Lewis Grosso, Matthew J. Schechter, Aaron J. Albano, Mark Aldrich, Tommy Bracco, John E. Brady, Ryan Breslin, Kevin Carolan, Kyle Coffman, Mike Faist, Julie Foldesi, Garrett Hawe, Thayne Jasperson, Evan Kasprzak, Jess LeProtto, Stuart Marland, Andy Richardson, Ryan Steele, Brendon Stimson, Nick Sullivan, Ephraim Sykes, Laurie Veldheer, Alex Wong
Director: Jeff Calhoun
Music: Alan Menken
Lyrics: Jack Feldman

Book: Harvey Fierstein, based on the Disney film written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White
Set designer: Tobin Ost
Costume designer: Jess Goldstein
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound designer: Ken Travis
Projection designer: Sven Ortel
Orchestrations: Danny Troob
Music supervisor/incidental music/vocal arrangements: Michael Kosarin
Choreographer: Christopher Gattelli
Presented by Disney Theatrical Productions