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Theater Review: Newsies and the Pleasures of the Gateway Musical

Newsies, a Disney Theatrical Production under the direction of Thomas Schumachter presents Newsies, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, book by Harvey Fierstein, starring Jeremy Jordan (Jack Kelly), John Dossett (Joseph Pulitzer), Kara Lindsay (Katherine Plumber), Capathia Jenkins (Medda), Ben Fankhauser (Davey), Andrew Keenan-Bolger (Crutchie), Lewis Grosso (Les) and Matthew J. Schechter (Les) under the direction of Jeff Calhoun, choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, World Premiere, Paper Mill Playhouse, in Millburn, New Jersey on September 25, 2011 'Newsies,' at the Nederlander.

I’ve heard them called “gateway musicals”: Shows that invite in younger fans, kids under 70 who find themselves curious about this “musical theater” they’ve heard so much about. Quality and style can vary widely, but they tend to be more recent additions to the Broadway canon. (Golden-age classics and spring-semester mainstays don’t count: Gateway musicals must be tough to mount in high schools, because without the struggle, where’s the allure?) Rent and Into the Woods both qualify, but so does Chess, that shapeless Reagan-era Halloween bag of goofy delights, and Jason Robert Brown’s oddly irresistible pity-party The Last Five Years. What’s required is a peculiar combination of soul-swelling optimism and anthemic pathos (or bathos, in a pinch). You’ve just described every musical ever written, sneer the cynics, but no: It’s harder to fake than you’d think.

Newsies has been an underground gateway since 1992, when it bombed as a movie musical. Disney intended the all-dancin’, all-singin’, all-picketin’ fantasy (based vaguely on the 1899 newsboys' strike and starring a smooth-cheeked, pre-Batty Christian Bale as the lead urchin) to establish a live-action beachhead for Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the songwriting team behind The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast; a young Kenny Ortega was hired to direct and choreograph. But Ashman died before work commenced (he was replaced as lyricist by Jack Feldman), and (like many Disney live-action projects) the film found neither an audience nor critical acclaim at the multiplex. Instead, Newsies entered home video and legend, spreading samizdat style from show choir to show choir, via its infectiously tuneful numbers, especially the audition mainstay “Santa Fe,” but also the roof-rattlers “King of New York,” “The World Will Know,” and “Seize the Day.” Really, how many new (or new-ish) musicals these days can lay claim to that many genuine world-beaters?

And so, after a brief twenty-year incubation period, Newsies is finally onstage where it belongs, in a Jeff Calhoun–directed production that’s as gloriously square as it is automatically ingratiating. Choreographer Christopher Gattelli masterfully channels both Jerome Robbins and Kenny Ortega–channeling–Jerome Robbins, then adds a good deal of his own custom style and launches his squadrons of whirling boys into the air, where they appear to hang for hours: It’s a Movement in movement. Ostensibly about a spontaneous turn-of-the-century labor action — touched off when the all-powerful New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer (John Dossett) jacked up the wholesale price of papers, squeezing the desperately poor kids who sell them — Newsies is really channeling the united and indomitable solidarity of musical theater nerddom, which continues to defy all ominous predictions of rising cynicism among the flinty, post-Millennial young. A single block of fromage set against a darkening world: This is what a Disney labor musical for kids (please take a moment to savor all the delicious ironies in that phrase) can achieve. Oldsters like myself are powerless to do anything but sing along. (Oh, who’s kidding whom? I was singing along before the house lights went down.)  

Much credit is due the show’s young star, Jeremy Jordan, who plays natural rabble-rouser and accidental organizer Jack Kelly. Jack’s a bluff young survivor who speaks the cartoon argot of Old New Yawk and find himself torn between dreams of escape to the mythic West and a familial attachment to his fellow “newsies,” the quasi-homeless orphans and scrapers who hawk the city papers to pedestrians. I saw Jordan in the role last fall at Paper Mill Playhouse, and he retains his smooth-criminal charm and muscular mid-tenor delivery. The kid’s got easy animal charisma by the barrelful, but sometimes he doesn’t know his own strength: Intent on reaching the back of the Nederlander, he pushes too hard in places, occasionally emoting himself into a trench. He’s had some help in this: Calhoun also directed Jordan in the infelicitous Bonnie and Clyde, where Jordan’s intensity was also encouraged to boil over. And Harvey Fierstein’s book, fleet and witty for the most part, does contain a few tiresomely repeated beats, especially when it comes to Jack’s character. (One occasionally senses the sheer number of meetings that went into this adaptation: How much heroic agency should Jack display? Should he lose heart, and if so, why, and how many times? This script’s math is showing.)

But this is a quibble, and besides, it’s hard to be too “big” for Newsies, a show where every lyric is a banner headline and every song is an anthem. (“Pulitzer may own the world, but he don’t own us!”) The fact is, Jordan, with his beaming, broad-shouldered bonhomie, disguises more of the show’s weaknesses than he exposes. His signature number is the soaring “Santa Fe,” which the playmakers have transformed from a mid-act secret weapon into the show’s governing leitmotif. As I said when I reviewed the Paper Mill Playhouse tryout, this is a mistake: The lyrical updates necessary to broaden the song’s function lack some of the simple yearning of the original. Overuse and preemptive deployment also sap the song of its power, forcing it to drag the whole show onstage in a trudging dray-horse of a prologue. (Note to budding book-writers: Please don’t open a show with characters we haven’t yet come to know, opening up their hearts to one another in song. We simply don’t care what’s in there. How could we? We haven’t met them yet.) But Jordan still manages to resuscitate “Santa Fe” fiercely at the end of Act One, sending us soaring out into the lobby on big, surging thermals of sweet torment. (And Fierstein, deep in Act Two, actually manages to get a solid laugh out of the excessive song-flogging in the show’s one “meta” joke. He also pulls off one of the better Horace Greeley gags seen on Broadway in recent decades.)

But the show doesn’t succeed on Jordan’s merits alone: newcomer Kara Lindsay, as plucky reporter and romantic foil Katherine Plummer, commits double-hard to the well-worn spunky-gal trope and comes out of it with a winning performance. Just when you think that sugar-cube smile is going to rot your teeth right out of your head, Lindsay throws you something recognizably human, little ripples and wrinkles of amusement that make her needle-sharp soprano into a precision detailing instrument. She even sells a song about that least inspiring of tasks, writing a news lede (“Watch What Happens”), with a perky excitement I don’t normally associate with that activity. (She’s assisted in this by some above-average patter-rhyming from lyricist Feldman.) Another new addition, the added-for-Broadway ballad “Something to Believe In,” is noticeably more contempo-pop than the other songs, but Lindsay and Jordan sell it well: In 1992, it might’ve been a radio number. And new music and dialogue for Dossett’s Pulitzer have transformed a top-hatted robber-baron heavy into a far more enjoyable antagonist.

The cast is uniformly strong, down to the rank and file. Ben Fankhauser stays just inside the lines as eggheaded brains-of-the-outfit Davey. As his impish brother, the tiny wiseacre Les, Matthew J. Schecter says the darnedest things and actually earns most of the Full House laughs that result. (He alternates with Lewis Grosso, who wasn’t on, the night I came. Child-labor laws, donchta know?) You know a show’s self-generating goodwill when it’s pulling down big mid-scene applause for smaller roles, like those played by superb yeoman character-actor John Brady; as the nearly lineless Specs, dance captain Ryan Steele is a consistently big presence. (Granted, most of his time onstage is spent in midair.) Ryan Breslin and Aaron Albano make their mark as newsie foot-soldiers. My one regret is the set, which remains a Hollywood Squares grid of flimsy aluminum siege towers that fight the period feel: They feel more like scaffolding than set, and the “levels” they create don’t quite make up for their brutish intrusion into prime dance space. I kept praying for a wrecking ball: This show thrives on people power, and I object to large, dead objects that occupy real-estate meant for flesh-and-blood occupiers. So many little fists in the sky! You can practically hear high-school drama teachers salivating as they contemplate the casting options: So many bodies onstage! Spotlight moments for everybody!

Newsies' days as a subterranean sensation are over, I think: Disney has unveiled its finest fairy tale in over a decade, a fairy tale that, for once, doesn’t concern royalty or implied-royalty or peasants aspiring to royalty. There’s enormous magnetism in this show, both for children and the grown-ups who brought them, and why not? Why shouldn’t there be a Mouse-eared labor musical? Why shouldn’t musical fantasy attach itself to a struggle for social justice, however pseudohistorical or simplified? Newsies will be many young fans’ first Broadway experience. They’ll emerge knowing they’re not alone, and that there’s not just strength in numbers, but rhythm and harmony, too. Can't wait to see what Hannity makes of all this.

Newsies is at the Nederlander Theatre.

Photo: Deen van Meer