Aaron J. Albano, left, and Jess LeProtto and the cast of ‘Newsies’ at the Nederlander Theater in New York. (Photo by Deen van Meer)
NEW YORK – With the exception of "Once," the best musical of the year, which I reviewed last month, this has not been a vintage year for the Broadway musical. Yet, Disney’s "Newsies," a stage version of its 1992 unsuccessful movie, which over the years has reached cult status with the electronic media set, has become the popular hit of the season among audiences hungry for a taste of old-fashioned hokum entertainment.
"Newsies" is really a musical wannabe, a pale imitation of the popular urchin musicals of the past, feverishly trying to mimic such shows as "Oliver" and "Annie," with singing and dancing newsboys filling in for Dickens’s pickpockets and Annie’s orphans.
The story was inspired by the real events of the New York newsboys strike of 1899, when independent newsies took on the newspaper titans of the day, Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, and William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the Journal.
The newsboy system had been masterminded by Pulitzer; the newsies, mostly homeless and orphaned young boys, bought stacks of papers each morning, hawked them on the street corners and, at the end of the day, were not refunded for any unsold newspapers.
When Pulitzer increased the distribution cost, two upstarts, Jack Kelly (Jeremy Jordan) and his sidekick Davey (Ben Fankhauser), rebelled. Inspired by the Brooklyn Trolley strike of 1895, they organized all the city’s newspaper peddlers. In the end, the strike succeeded and their win carried much larger implications, ultimately leading to a movement to support the rights of all child laborers.
"Newsies" opened last fall at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse to an uproar of acclamation by audiences and local reviewers that was a surprise to everyone, even the folks at Disney, who at that point were planning on sending the show on a national road tour. Quickly, they changed their logistics and instead shipped "Newsies" across the Hudson River to the Nederlander Theater on West 41st Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, for a limited run that has been extended indefinitely.
In transferring "Newsies" to the stage, Disney hired an experienced musical theater bookwriter, Harvey Fierstein, to punch up Bob Izudiker’s and Noni White’s original screenplay. It also took on composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman to write some new songs even though the best songs in the show are the half dozen they wrote for the movie version.
The talented Mr. Menken, who has won 11 Oscars for such Disney film scores as "Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin," has, for the most part, written a pretty mediocre selection of tunes and anthems for "Newsies," most of which are coated with pop flavored orchestrations by Daniel Troob. There are a couple of songs that do stand out: a nice ballad, "Watch What Happens," sung by Katherine (Kara Lindsay), a reporter from the New York World who not only helps the newsies’ cause, but also becomes Jack’s love interest; and the galvanizing Act Two opener "King of New York," which evolves into a fierce tap dance for the Newsies’ all-male chorus and lifts the show to that height of excitement that we expect of a musical like this. Most of the other choreography by Christopher Gattelli is energetic, yet suffers from having any real originality. The constant flips, turns and jumps, reminiscent of Michael Kidd’s athletic dances from the film "Seven Brides For Seven Brothers," get repetitious after a while.
The cast is full of talented triple-threat Broadway actor-singer-dancer pros. Mr. Jordan at the center, as strike leader Jack Kelly, seems to be a star in the making. Earlier this season, he was a standout as Clyde Barrow in the short-lived musical version of "Bonnie and Clyde." In "Newsies" he makes more of an impression: his acting is first-rate, singing voice strong and attractive and he knows how to get and hold an audience’s attention, even when he has to speak some of the show’s corniest lines.
Although there are some effective scenes and a rousing musical number or two, "Newsies" is a disappointment, an uneasy and exasperating mixture of song, dance, drama, sentimental romance and social significance that never quite earns our unqualified vote of support.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.