Theatre Review: Newsies
Jeremy Jordan and the cast of Newsies. Photo by Deen van Meer.
The Disney musical strikes a winning chord
If you possess a soft spot for a pre-Method, pre-crazypants Christian Bale with precarious vocals and an even shakier New York accent… If you vividly recollect experiencing the Mouse House musical in a theatre full of enthusiastic kids during Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club-lovin’ heyday… If your brother sang “Santa Fe” ad nauseam for ten years following said viewing… If in high school you performed “Seize the Day,” Glee-style, in front of Cinderella’s Castle at Disney World… (ok, maybe those last two are just me)… well, this is for you.
While the majority of critics enjoyed Newsies, there’s a definite sense that most of them have never seen the 1992 film, and if they have, they certainly don’t get its cult appeal. Sure, Newsies was a total box office flop, but it’s beloved by a generation, and so, as a hardcore Newsies fan, I offer you a breakdown of the much-anticipated Broadway adaptation.
Reasons to see Newsies the Musical:
- The sing-a-long score is still intact. Super-composer Alan Menken, fresh off of Oscar wins for Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, gave us Newsies the same year his Aladdin was released. In other words, this is one catchy, well-crafted (in the Disney-Golden-Age-vein) score, and Menken didn’t mess with it much for its Broadway transfer. None of your favorites — “Seize the Day,” “Carrying the Banner,” “King of New York — made the cutting room floor, though both of Medda’s did. Downsizing Medda’s role was smart (no offense, Ann-Margret, but no one needed to hear that much from you), but the forgettable “That’s Rich” isn’t as good as either the songs it replaced.
- It’s officially Jack Kelly’s story. Disney mainstays, writers Bob Tzudiker and Noni White (The Lion King, Hunchback, Tarzan) were under the impression that we cared more about working class Davey and li’l cutie Les than we did about hardened, dreamy newsboy, Jack Kelly. We all love us some David Moscow (don’t we?), but they were obviously mistaken. Bookwriter Harvey Fierstein fixes this misstep for the stage by minimizing the family boys’ roles and making it orphan Jack’s story from moment one — even if the “Santa Fe” prologue is a little misguided (for such a peppy show, it’s a snoozer of a start).
- The ensemble is stellar. This ragtag bunch of twentysomethings have energy to spare, as they belt, jump, leap and tap their way on and around Tobin Ost’s massive, rolling steel jigsaw of a set. These boys love what they’re doing, and that unfiltered joy bursts through in every high-energy musical number. They’re an utter delight to watch.
- Christian who? If you thought you’d miss Christian Bale pre-movie stardom, you’re mistaken. Jeremy Jordan (Bonnie and Clyde) makes bad (news)boy Jack Kelly his own with a rough bravado that carefully hides a sensitive artist (Oh yes, Fierstein has given Kelly some (unnecessary) painterly ambitions). Ridiculously charismatic and exuding a kind of magnetic masculinity that is so rarely seen in a musical, you can’t tear your eyes off of him whenever he’s on stage. You might even leave the theatre with a little bit of a crush… ahem.
- Disney supports OWS. I don’t think I need point out the parallels between the 1899 newsboy strike against corporate mammoths Pulitzer and Hearst and the current OWS movement. But the irony of a super-shiny (are those boys really orphans? Those trousers look awfully crisp and clean) Disney musical making those timely comparisons sure is giggle-inducing.
Reasons to re-watch Newsies the film:
- Christopher Gattelli is no Kenny Ortega (who is no Michael Kidd). Unfortunately, when the critics are right, they’re right: Gattelli’s choreography is super-acrobatic and high-energy, but it largely consists of the same few movements — leap, jump, pirouette, repeat! There is a fun number in which the boys slide and spin around on sheets of papes, and “King of New York” is a taptastic second-act opener, but originality is clearly wanting. Sure, Ortega took inspiration from the balletic athleticism of Michael Kidd, but his numbers were more cleverly thought-out, while Gatelli’s become a bit tiresome by show’s end.
- Harvey Fierstein could use a dramaturg. “It had energetic music, but it’s a pretty awful movie,” Fierstein has commented. His statement is hilarious for a number of reasons — least of which is that the stage adaptation is not much different from the cinematic version — but mostly because he doesn’t know (or care about?) history. Newsies now showcases a more fully-realized love interest for Jack in the form of plucky go-getter Katherine Plumber, and vaudeville-owner Medda, as portrayed by Capathia Jenkins, is now African American. Never mind the near impossibilities of a female reporter and an African-American owning an establishment of that capacity, eh, Harvey? And on a side note: the book is now peppered with Fierestein signature cheesy humor (oy).
- Pulitzer sings! Twice! It sure cuts down Pulitzer’s (John Dossett) villainy when he’s belting bouncy little ditties about “The Bottom Line.” While Menken’s original tuners are blissfully present (though why the lyrics to “Seize the Day” needed changing, one will never know), the composer got a little over-ambitious, adding a handful of rather bland numbers including a duet of the “soaring” variety between lovers Jack and Katherine (“Something to Believe In”). Then again, he also proffered a smart little gem of a tune for Katherine about writer’s block (“Watch What Happens”) with some tongue-twisting syncopations courtesy of lyricist Jack Feldman.
- David Moscow! Bill Pullman! (An unrecognizable) Robert Duvall! That kid from Doogie Howser! Ok, so I missed them a little bit. And that rebel Brooklynite Spot Conlon — so much cooler (and more present) in the film.
When you get right down to it, there’s nothing really wrong with this loving and largely faithful stage adaptation. You either like a good ol’ fashioned Disney stage musical or you don’t, and this is the Mouse House’s glorious return to its play-by-the-numbers family-friendly form. If you’ve a soft spot in your heart for the less-than-perfect musical movie that charmed a generation, all the better. Get ready to fall in love all over again with those dancin’ newsboys — especially that Jeremy Jordan (can we say Tony?).
208 West 41st Street
New York, NY 10036
Performances from March 19 – August 19, 2012
Opened March 29, 2012