Occupy Wall Street. The Ryan Budget. "I don't care what the unemployment rate's going to be." "I’m not concerned about the very poor."
2012 would seem to be an ideal time for a new musical about the 1899 newsboys' strike. Who but the staunchest of the 1% would not be gladdened by an uplifting tale of underage underdogs fighting Big Business and emerging victorious?
Newsies, one would think, is a slam dunk.
Think again, and when you do, be sure and check out the Disney label just to the left of the show's title. Somehow, the only new musical on Broadway this season with even a remotely socially conscious/political theme is the product of the largest entertainment company in the United States (#65 on the Fortune 500, according to the World Almanac). Did I really expect something inspirational and/or pertinent from the folks who gave us Aida, Tarzan, and The Little Mermaid?
Alas, Newsies is barely as competent as those three shows. Alan Menken's music—except for two songs that are poor Sondheim imitations—feels like recycled Alan Menken music from past Disney movies; Jack Feldman's lyrics are almost instantly forgettable; Harvey Fierstein's book is a pandering, dumbed-down, fanciful re-imagining of an actual event in which almost none of the facts have been faithfully rendered. (This Wikipedia article is brief but enlightening.) The rousing tap dance to "King of New York" excepted, Christopher Gattelli's choreography is both uninspired and derivative (the Act One finale morphs alarmingly from West Side Story to Gene Kelly's newspaper dance in Summer Stock to Les Miserables' "One Day More"). Tobin Ost's set is both clunky and shockingly imprecise in its ability to convey location (and I kept wondering why, in an era when a drama like Chinglish can have high-tech settings flying in and out automatically, a big-budget musical like Newsies needs its hard-working cast-members to constantly drag furniture on and off stage).
I might have forgiven some of this if Newsies' approach to its storytelling weren't so calculatedly crass. In Jack Kelly (Jeremy Jordan, armed with an Elvis sneer and bad-boy good looks), the fictional "hero" of this show, we have an Annie without the consistent sunny optimism; a Jean Valjean without the unwavering faith to always do what's right. And—worse—in newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer (John Dossett), we have a Scrooge defeated not by convincing argument but the threat of blackmail.
Meanwhile, the real hero of the show, the courageous and intelligent second banana David (played with great charisma and spirit by Ben Fankhauser), practically disappears from the show's second act, while Jack's worshipful sidekick, the Tiny Tim-esque Crutchie (Andrew Keenan-Bolger), literally disappears, emerging just in time for the finale. I would have liked a more democratic distribution of opportunities for the talented young company members, all of whom seem to be giving a hundred percent and then some to execute Gattelli's plentiful though uninteresting choreography. (Ryan Steele, as a newsboy named "Specs," is particularly exciting to watch.)
The combination of relentlessly mediocre stagecraft and foolishly diluted history/politics disheartened me greatly, as you have probably realized. The fact that Newsies was so enthusiastically received by an apparently very easy-to-please audience only made me feel worse.