NEW YORK — There are many memorable aspects of Newsies, the new Disney stage musical based on the cult 1992 movie. From the catchy songs by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman to the versatile set by Tobin Ost, the production is grade-A entertainment and likely the best musical of the season. But trumping everything and everyone on the stage of the Nederlander Theatre is Christopher Gattelli’s spirited choreography, which sends these turn-of-the-century newsboys high-flying into the air like a gaggle of Billy Elliotts all grown up.
Jeremy Jordan plays Jack Kelly, the ringleader of a ragtag group of “newsies” in New York City, circa 1899. They look and sound like the male counterparts to Annie’s group of impoverished girls. Their costumes are dirty, simple and ragged. Their language is rough and their thoughts are constantly on earning that next dime.
Every morning, the boys line up to get their copy of Jopseh Pulitzer’s The World. They don’t earn much money, but for Jack and the boys, there’s nothing like a handful of change and the prospects of the open marketplace. We learn of their profession through the show’s first powerhouse song: “Carrying the Banner,” which smartly sets the musical on a whirlwind of energy. The newsies offer expertly staged ensemble dances to match the verve of each song, and the resulting numbers are beautiful to behold. This is musical theater at its finest — a show in complete control of its many different elements.
Jack, our natural hero for the night, doesn’t mind his job, but he dreams of leaving the Big Apple for the tranquility of Santa Fe (a dream he reminds us of throughout the evening). He’s not exactly sure why he wants to live in New Mexico, but he knows that’s the place for him.
The problem — and it’s a big one — is that Pulitzer (John Dossett) decides to decrease the newsies’ profit margin on his newspapers, and the boys stand to work harder for less. What’s an unorganized group of ridiculed workers supposed to do when faced with such adversity? Unionize, of course. Jack begins a veritable revolution, with the help of his good friends, Crutchie (Andrew Keenan-Bolger), Davey (Ben Fankhauser) and Les (played alternately by Lewis Grosso and Matthew J. Schechter). They go out on strike and decide to take on the Goliath newspaper industry (remember when newspapers wielded so much power?).
The songs throughout this melee are genuinely entertaining. The larger the number, the better it emanates from the Nederlander stage. “Seize the Day” and “King of New York” are highlights, but there’s not a clunker in the bunch. Each ditty advances the plot and provides ample calisthenics for the dancers.
There are minor quibbles, to be sure. The newsies, except for a few actors, are largely lacking in character. They become one solitary group, and there’s not much time given to the different personalities. The book by Harvey Fierstein is reminiscent of our image of this time era, rather than reality itself. It works for the show, but largely takes a backseat to Menken’s work and Gattelli’s choreography.
Director Jeff Calhoun uses the three-tiered set perfectly, always letting our eyes ascend to the rooftops of New York City or the offices of The World. Scene changes happen quickly, and there’s a great fluidity to the two-act musical. The two-hour-30-minute running time flies by.
Jordan and the talented cast are probably too old for their respective parts, but they sell their youthful enthusiasm without any second guesses. Jordan, in particular, is quite likable as our central character, and he sings his “Santa Fe” songs with real passion and dedication. It’s through his eyes that we experience the personal side of these newsboys.
Kara Lindsay is quite good as Pulitzer’s daughter and Jack’s eventual love interest, Katherine. Fankhauser offers a compelling portrait of Davey, a young man trying to provide for his family. Davey’s 10-year-old brother (played by Lewis Grosso at the press performance I attended) provides the evening with the largest laughs.
Newsies is wholesome entertainment that uses the trappings of musical theater to wondrous effect. There’s nothing terribly novel on the stage, or even overly inventive, but the musical still succeeds tremendously, because it knows how to perfect the great mainstays of singing, dancing and acting. It’s almost impossible not to be entertained.
Newsies deserves a healthy open-ended run beyond its limited engagement. The dancing is some of the best on Broadway.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Jack Feldman
Book by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Jeff Calhoun
Choreography by Christopher Gattelli
Starring Jeremy Jordan, John Dossett, Kara Lindsay, Capathia Jenkins and Andrew Keenan-Bolger
Running time: 150 minutes
Currently playing the Nederlander Theatre at 208 W. 41st St. in New York City. Click here for more information.