nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
October 2, 2011
It might be heresy, but I’m not afraid to admit that I enjoyed Newsies more than any other Disney Theatricals venture I’ve seen. That long, auspicious list includes Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Mary Poppins, The Little Mermaid and Tarzan. For my money, Newsies, Alan Menken, Jack Feldman and Harvey Fierstein’s stage adaptation of the cheesy 1992 movie musical of the same name, is better than them all. It’s not even on Broadway—it’s at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, New Jersey, in what might be a pre-Broadway run, should executives decide to transfer it across state lines. Well, I hope they do.
The film, directed by a pre-High School Musical Kenny Ortega, from a screenplay by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White, is largely regarded as a joyless, pointless mess. Telling the story of the 1899 Newsboys Strike, in which a group of poor, homeless newspaper boys revolted against Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst when they chose to raise their prices from $0.50 to $0.60 per bundle, the film starred a young Christian Bale as Jack Kelly, the tenacious individual who chose to organize a union, and Robert Duvall as Mr. Pulitzer. Costing over $15 million to produce, it grossed under $3 million, though its cult-like following has followed it for years.
A cast of 31, led by the fiery Jeremy Jordan as Jack, brings the production to full-blooded life. Menken and Feldman’s anthem-driven score has been retained, augmented by some new songs, with Fierstein crafting a charming and heart-filled book that ends up an exemplary model of how to successfully adapt a film for the stage. Christopher Gatelli’s rafter-shaking choreography pays loving homage to the film’s athletic dance numbers, with plenty of back flips and pirouettes. He turns the great and catchy “King of New York,” the second act opener, into a show-stopping tap number, which, I’ll admit, gave me goosebumps. Jeff Calhoun’s exuberant direction furthers the heart at the show’s core even further.
Still, there are a few elements that need to be smoothed out if they do decide to take the production to Broadway. Opening the show with the hopeful "I want" ballad “Santa Fe,” as endearingly performed by Jordan and Andrew Keenan-Bolger’s lovable Crutchie (the disabled newsie) as it is, doesn’t really work, especially when directly followed by a more natural opener, “Carrying the Banner,” the first of many production numbers. Kara Lindsay is divine as Katherine Plumber, the journalist with a secret who takes a liking to Jack and his cause, though she needs to be introduced much earlier on as the major player in the story that she is. (Katherine was invented by Fierstein, presumably to introduce female blood and as a love interest for Jack.) The comic villains, led by the great and incredibly underused John Dossett as Joseph Pulitzer, could afford to appear both more threatening and more often.
Tobin Ost’s looming set of three sky-scraping metallic structures and staircases reminds one of the New York Times’s office building on Eighth Avenue. Unobtrusive projections by Sven Ortel and lighting by Jeff Croiter provide audiences with a journey through the winding streets of New York City, circa 1899. Jess Goldstein’s period costumes are pretty and period, and Danny Troob’s orchestrations, played by a twelve-member orchestra are perfect.
Whether Newsies will make it to Manhattan is up in the air, so you should consider heading to the Paper Mill just in case. Even if you get stuck in football traffic on the way home, you’ll still be smiling.