Newsies dances as fast as it can
By Doug Strassler
Newsies: The Musical, the new family-friendly Disney musical that just opened at the Nederlander Theater, pounds out its almost-catchy tunes from the marquee for all passersby to hear, only to bellow even louder for those privileged enough to get this hot ticket and see the show. And one might think that the show, loosely based on a real New York newsboy strike in the summer of 1899, might to have something to say about the collision of art and commerce in the printing industry. But the bigger impression one gets from this enjoyably hollow exercise (and boy is it a workout for those onstage!) isn’t about writing at all; it’s about the math required to stitch together a potential Broadway smash, at all costs.
By all means, one would think that the producers have succeeded. Newsies, directed by Jeff Calhoun’s transferred from a regional run at the Paper Mill Playhouse early this season and has already announced one extension through the summer (with more likely) and boasts a new star in the much-ballyhooed Jeremy Jordan. The charismatic, boyish actor (who already originated another leading role on the Great White Way this fall in Bonnie and Clyde) is impressive as Jack Kelly, one of many urchins peddling papers on the streets of the city. When boo-hiss villain Joseph Pulitzer (John Dossett) ups the price of his “papes,” it sends Kelly’s crew, which includes the injured Crutchie (an outstanding Andrew Keenan-Bolger), nerdy Davey (Ben Fankhauser,) and Davey’s young brother, Les (played by either Matthew J. Schechter and Lewis Grosso), into a frenzy. With Davey’s prodding, Jack spearheads the strike.
Newsies, which had the misfortune to begin life as a film twenty years before the live action movie musical came back in vogue and tanked, toes the formula line to ensure a different outcome on Broadway. Some of this success will be earned, starting with the dance factor. The punishing choreographer Christopher Gattelli has arranged numerous group arrangements involving plenty of dancing, flipping, and mid-air twirling; the entire cast astounds with their movement ability, especially in Jess Goldstein’s detailed costumes (pay attention when Jack and the gang try to convince their Brooklyn newsie rivals to join the strike; apparently, hipsters lived in the borough even at the turn of the last century). Harvey Fierstein, in adapting Bob Tzudiker’s and Noni White’s screenplay, has conflated Bill Pullman’s crusading reporter character and Davey’s sister Sarah, a love interest for Jack, into Katharine Plummer (Kara Lindsay), a plucky female journalist. For all the ink dropped heralding the arrival of Jordan, it is Lindsay who runs away with Newsies. Katharine’s a smart, plot-propelling character, and the performer turns one of the show’s new songs, “Watch What Happens,” into a character-defining look at the inherent challenges in the newswriting business.
Unfortunately, Newsies also incurs few creative demerits, several of which must also be ascribed to Fierstein. While unfairly diminishing the role of Davey (which is a shame; Fankhauser gives a spirited performance that doesn’t deserve to be overshadowed), he cleaves too closely to the movie’s screenplay in other ways. At one point, Davey mentions how his father would love to meet Jack. But that made sense because in the film’s next scene, he brought Jack home to meet his family; in the stage version, we never even see Davey’s dad. Why not trim this fat? Additionally, the role of music hall diva Medda Larkin was created to shoehorn Ann-Margret into the movie and provide it with an additional star. Her presence in the stage version is unnecessary and slows the production down.
And then there’s the score, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman (who replaced the intended Howard Ashman for the movie version). The duo deftly blends current pop sensibilities with more standard orchestral swing on holdovers from the film, including “Seize the Day,” “The World Will Know,” “King of New York,” and “Carrying the Banner” (in fact, with a chorus line shouting “It’s a fine life!,” the score calls to mind both Annie and Oliver!). The new songs, particularly love ballad “Something to Believe In,” feel less inspired, however, and ultimately, all of the songs blend together and the impressive dancing feels redundant. Numbers also stop only to reprise themselves immediately after, in a seemingly desperate attempt for as much “look at what we can do” applause as possible.
All of these choices reflect a canned feeling for Newsies. The only song approaching an organic, character-based showstopper to be found in richer recent shows like Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon or Next to Normal, is “Santa Fe,” in which Jack sings of his dream life away from the city. But the creative team has squandered it by placing it as the show’s opening number, which is a mistake. We learn important information about Jack before we even know who he is. The show, buoyant as it is, shares this problem. It’s an audience- pleaser without an identity of its own.
Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St. www.newsiesthemusical.com
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