There was nothing quite like the excitement, anticipation, and expectation that accompanied the world premiere of “Newsies” when it opened at the Paper Mill Playhouse earlier this season. It doesn’t come as a surprise that this musical, the result of work by some of the most creative and lauded talents in theater, has been moved to Broadway.
To really experience the full pleasure of the new and improved “Newsies,” under the direction of Jeff Calhoun, you have to appreciate the fact that this musical has its roots in a Disney film musical that not only failed to garner many enthusiastic reviews when it was released in 1992, but also generated virtually no box office interest.
In typical fashion for a bomb, “Newsies” died and went to TV/DVD heaven, where the strangest thing happened. It developed a devoted and adoring cult following that grew to the point where a better life for it was ordained by the film’s eight-time Academy Award-winning composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman with the help of Disney Theatrical Productions. With an expanded/enhanced exhilarating score, a more than commendably revised book by four time Tony Award-winner Harvey Fierstein (based on the original screenplay by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White), and plenty of vigorously athletic choreography by Christopher Gattelli, “Newsies” has everything it needs to secure its future as popular stage entertainment for the entire family.
Based on the real-life story of a group of newsboys who went on a two-week long strike in New York City in 1899 against the unfair policies being initiated by the ruthless, prominent, and powerful publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, “Newsies” is the story of a courageous young newsboy Jack Kelly (Jeremy Jordan) who organizes his fellow and mostly homeless newsboys in protest when their employer Joseph Pulitzer decides to raise the cost of the newspapers that the newsboys have to first buy before they can sell.
The result of this new collaboration is an exuberant mix of song, dance, and some surprisingly topical and timely politically compelling dramatic action. This is a fast-moving, spectacularly designed, excitingly performed musical that should keep its intended family audiences well entertained. Background: Though labor unions had begun being formed in the mid-19th century, their initial impact wasn’t sustained due to poor management.
This musical, which takes place at a time when Republicans had once again regained their power and control over the working classes, is really also a wake-up call to all those who sit idly by today as collective bargaining by the unions and the unions themselves are being denounced by right wing governors, capitalists, corporatists, and industrialists. Is “Newsies” a message musical? You bet, and one that would undoubtedly have warmed the agitprop heart of the late political playwright/activist Bertolt Brecht. But does this also mean that we will be bludgeoned by the message?
If dancing up a storm in protest in support of a righteous cause is a kind of bludgeoning, then choreographer Gattelli and his tough corps of “Newsies” are guilty. If the singing of such rousing anthems as “Carrying the Banner” and “The World Will Know,” and “Seize the Day” by Jack and the young activists gathered from all the boroughs of New York City tear at your heart and move you to cheer it’s partially because we are urging them on. Jordan is simply dynamic as Jack, who takes his cause to the streets, leads his Newsies into direct and brutal confrontations with the police, the hired goons, and scabs and the goons, and then marches nobly into the offices of the unsympathetic Joseph Pulitzer at the New York Sun.
With Jordan leading the Newsies in their many, varied, and boisterously athletic routines, this is a musical that is every bit as by-movement-and-song-propelled as any ever conceived by Twyla Tharp. We can sense that there is something special afoot when we spot the taps clamped onto the Newsies’ work boots as they gather for a meeting at Jacobi’s Deli and where their zeal finds an outlet in a ferocious ensemble tap number: one in which every table feels the brunt of their collective determination.
Aside from the terrific ensemble dancing that fills “Newsies,” all of which is excitingly integrated into Fierstein’s beautifully focused book, Jordon remains the principal mover and shaker-upper. Jordon, who earlier in the season portrayed Clyde Barrow in the short-lived new musical “Bonnie & Clyde,” is on a roll demonstrating his star power right. In “Newsies” he is projecting his “New Yawk” state of mind, body, and voice from his first appearance, especially as he puts over his character’s wish-fulfillment to leave New York in the theme song “Santa Fe.”
“Santa Fe” is a humdinger of a ballad that opens the show while Jordon is standing atop the spectacular, applause-deserving set designed by Tobin Ost. This is a huge metal construction comprising elevated, compartmentalized sections that pivot, move, and interlock with awesome ease. Also impressive is the stream of cityscape projections provided by Sven Ortel. This is a darkly atmospheric show with stunning lighting by Jeff Croiter that stresses the Newsies’ grimmer hard-scrabble life on the streets. Costume designer Jess Goldstein is responsible for their authentically grubby attire.
The basic plot is enhanced winningly with Jack’s friendship with the physically challenged but also brimming with personality “Crutchie” (Andrew Keenan-Bolger), and also his romance with Katherine (a delightfully spunky performance by Kara Lindsay) a young woman journalist who wants to write an article in support of their protest but who is also hiding a secret. Lindsay and Jordan have a touching romantic moment on a rooftop where they sing the poignant duet “Then I See You.”
Jack’s flair with a paint brush helps him earn a little extra money painting scenery at a neighborhood saloon where he also maintains a friendship with saloon singer Medda Larkin (Capathia Jenkins) Jenkins is put in the spotlight with a saucy number “Don’t Come a-Knockin’” accompanied by “the girls.”
Particularly endearing among the Newsies are the brainy Davey (Ben Fankhuser) and Les (Lewis Grosso) his younger and fearless 10 year-old brother who, despite not being homeless like the other Newsies, become committed to helping Jack in making sure that “The World Will Know.” Standout among the meanies is John Dosset as the power-hungry Pulitzer. Fierstein’s script makes it easy to also dislike John E. Brady, as the smarmy newspaper distributor “Wiesel,” and Stuart Marland as the corrupt thug Snyder.
A lot of credit must go to director Calhoun who has rallied 32 performers, some playing multiple roles, to create an impressively unified ensemble. There is further comfort in knowing that Governor Theodore Roosevelt (Kevin Carolan) comes to the aid of the Newsies just like another relative of his comes to the rescue of Little Orphan Annie in another musical. Whether Newsies has as long a life as Annie remains to be seen. This leads me to recall the refrain that Katherine sings at her typewriter as she writes her story, “Watch What Happens.” ***
“Newsies,” Nederlander Theater, 208 West 41st Street. ($91 to $125. Call 866-870-2717.