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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Disney's Newsies The Musical Dances its Way into Our Hearts

Also see Bob's reviews of Much Ado About Nothing, Ten Cents a Dance

Disney's Newsies The Musical has roared into the Paper Mill Playhouse in a sharp, snazzy, complex production which thrillingly integrates book, music and lyrics, choreography, scenery and performances with amazing precision, dexterity, energy and professional skill. This old-fashioned, melodious musical has been produced with the pizzazz that matches the best of Broadway.

Newsies
The Newsies

Newsies The Musical is based on a relatively unknown 1992 Disney musical film of the same title which was poorly reviewed and failed at the box office. One of Disney's efforts to revive the genre of original live action musical films, it has become a sort of cult classic with a considerable number of enthusiasts. The story is a fictionalized account of the 1899 strike of New York newspaper boys (street sellers) against Joseph Pulitzer (as well as other newspaper publishers). In order to increase revenues, Pulitzer arbitrarily decides to raise the newsboys' price from fifty cents to sixty cents for one hundred copies. The newsboys, largely runaways and orphans living in communal flophouses, form a union themselves under the leadership of 17-year-old Jack Ryan and his new-found buddy Davey. They expand their support by expanding their mission into a children's crusade against exploiting children in factories (sweatshops), slaughter houses, and "The Refuge", a cruel and corrupt juvenile jail/shelter. The newsboys are aided in the stage version by fledging reporter Katherine Plumber, music hall performer-proprietor Medda Larkin, and, ultimately, Governor Teddy Roosevelt.

Newsies is superior family entertainment. Between book covers, it would be classified as a novel for adolescents. It is a fine show on its own terms. There will be some who cannot accept those terms and will find it overly simplistic and frivolous given the underlying seriousness of its subject matter.

There is much credit to extend to the creators of this musical. Book author Harvey Fierstein has tightened the film's story and made a number of plot alterations that strengthen the logic of the progression of the strike and strikers, have the strikers taking a higher road than the goons turned on them, and focus the story and locations more tightly. He has eliminated both Bryan Denton, the male reporter who aided them, and Sarah, Davey's sister, who served as Jack Kelly's romantic interest. Fierstein has created Katherine Plummer, who serves the function of both and more. He has turned Jack into a born artist who paints backdrops for Medda, giving her role in the proceedings more believability and explaining why Santa Fe is the object of his dreams. Fierstein has retained much of the dialogue from the original screenplay and, crucially, retained all that is essential to the film's story and heartbeat.

While less gritty than the film, which is appropriate for this largely family-friendly, populist stage musical, it is still more gritty than most such properties. In fact, it deals with painful historic realities which are above the heads of younger children. Fierstein's only misstep is moving the song "Santa Fe" to the top of the show. Sung on a flophouse rooftop before dawn, it makes for a slow, uninvolving opening, failing to introduce the scope of the main story nearly as well as the rousing spirit of the newsboys' "Carrying the Banner" which opens the film, but is now delayed until the second scene. Furthermore, the wistful and soaring "Santa Fe" will and does work far better when sung after we have come to know and care for Jack, and have a greater knowledge of its centrality to the narrative. It seems that Fierstein is seeking a arc in positioning "Santa Fe" to both open and close the first act, but the cost of opening with it far outweighs any benefit derived. This can, and will be, I am convinced, easily fixed.

The music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman consist of six songs carried over from the movie and five new songs written directly for the stage. The songs are for the most part thoroughly integrated into the book and often during reprises carry new lyrics which speak to specific plot developments, thus forwarding the plot. There are short vocal fragments beyond the aforementioned songs. The new songs are integrated seamlessly with the original. Maybe the movie critics who dismissed the film should have listened to Alan Menken's score more closely. It is truly lovely. "Santa Fe" is a beautiful, soaring song which accounts in part for the continuing interest in the film, and may yet become widely known. Jack Feldman's lyrics are appropriate to the plot and characters and particularly impressive in their ability to advance the story.

Two first-rate additions to the score are "Watch What Happens," which is a good example of a song advancing plot without sacrificing musical quality, and a lovely ballad for Katherine and Jack, "Then I See You Again," which should be more prominently spotlighted. Another effective new song is "The News Is Getting Better", an ear pleasing, jaunty, old fashioned (not quite) ragtime tune for an overly confident Joseph Pulitzer contemplating the extra income he will gain from raising the newspaper price for the newsboys. There is a heavy load of anthems which are carried over from the film score. However, they are really good, rousing music. Given the solid quality of "Carrying the Banner," "The World Will Know," "Seize the Day" and Once and For All" this is unlikely to bother most audiences. The strength with which they advance the story and provide vigorous accompaniment to the robust choreography adds to their intrinsic value. I would also note that they are less bombastic than the anthems that certainly have not hindered the success of Les Miserables.

There is a new song for Medda, "Don't Come a-Knocking", which contains a pointless and inappropriate double entendre. Medda has a song in the film of Newsies, "High Times, Hard Times, which seems stronger and more appropriate.

The 27-member cast performs with élan and precision. Jeremy Jordan delivers a potentially star-making performance as Jack Kelly. Strong of voice, handsome and rugged in appearance, likeably larger than life earnest, and displaying acrobatic dancing chops, Jordan will be seeing teenage girls lining up outside the stage door after each Newsies performance. Jordan gets to sing "Santa Fe" and hits it out of the park.

Kara Lindsay is a vivacious and perky Kathleen Plumber. She is one of only four women in the company. Ben Fankhauser (Davey) and delightful child actor Vincent Agnello (Les) lend strong support as, respectively, the co-leader of the strike and his rambunctious younger brother. John Dossett is a fine and unfussy Joseph Pulitzer and delivers his solo with musical comedy aplomb. The balance of the company, including those in each of the fifteen major featured roles of newsies, play multiple featured and ensemble roles flawlessly. The fifteen newsies constitute an all-male, strong and unusual, show-stopping dance ensemble.

Choreographer Christopher Gattelli here solidifies his movement into the first rank of choreographers for the American musical theatre. His robust and exciting choreography is not only extremely gymnastic, as was the film choreography of Kenny Ortega and Peggy Holmes, but, unlike the film choreography, it contains large amounts of classical ballet movement. There are three formal dance numbers, additional numerous bursts of dance mostly during scene transitions, and a too short, potent dance divertissement between the last scene and the curtain calls. This is show-stopping stuff.

There may not be much subtlety in director Jeff Calhoun's full-throttled, emphatic staging, but it brims with youthful enthusiasm and the highest level of polished professionalism. Some quieter scenes would likely benefit from gentler, more contemplative direction. This would also provide the ebb and flow which allows audiences to recharge their batteries for the build to the next big, driving number. Yet, I'm not certain that audiences attuned to high concept, summer action movie sequels would appreciate such an approach.

The enormously complex physical production, and its brilliant and precisely engineered deployment erases the lines between the solid work of set designer Tobin Ost, projection designer Sven Ortel, lighting designer Jeff Croiter and director Calhoun. There are three automated metal trolleys side by side across most of the width of the stage. Each rises to almost the full height of the stage, and is divided into three stories. The trolleys move backward and forward and rotate to various angles independently. Each of the nine sections is equipped with a transparent front screen which is independently lowered to cover its section. One relatively simple configuration finds the center and stage left trolleys brought forward side by side to mid-stage with lowered screens, and a single lush projection of the stately office of Joseph Pulitzer covers the six screens. The actors, the digital projections (which include live action motion picture-like images of details of scenes being played downstage) employ, share and divide the nine areas in a dizzying array of changing patterns which not only change from scene to scene, but within each scene. The staging allows us to view events in differing locations at the same time. This is thrilling 21st century stagecraft that enhances every moment of this production.

Among additional scenic elements are two smaller trolleys which are manually deployed. Among their innumerable functions is to serve as the lodging house rooftop (adorned with a clothesline which is dropped from the flies), and, equipped with iron bars, one becomes the entrance point for the newspaper distribution depot. When not deployed, these trolleys sit one to each side with their narrow sides facing front.

A lot of people in the New York metropolitan area are going want to see Disney's Newsies The Musical, which is only scheduled to run through October 16. If you are one of them, and, having read this far, there is a good chance that you are, it behooves you to order your tickets as soon as you can. It is likely to be the event of the New Jersey theatre season.

Newsies The Musical continues performances (Evenings Wednesday - Sunday 7 PM/ Matinees Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 PM) through October 16, 2011, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 3 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.

Newsies The Musical Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Jack Feldman; Book by Harvey Fierstein based on the Disney film written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White; directed by Jeff Calhoun; Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli


Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Cast
Jack Kelly....................................................Jeremy Jordan

The Newsies:

Crutchie.........................................Andrew Keenan-Bolger
Race...............................................................Ryan Breslin
Albert.............................................................Garett Hawe
Specs..............................................................Ryan Steele
Henry............................................................Kyle Coffman
Finch.........................................................Aaron J. Albano
Romeo.....................................................Andy Richardson
Elmer..........................................................Evan Kasprzak
Sniper....................................................Scott Shedenhelm
Buttons...............................................................JP Ferreri
JoJo.....................................................Corey Hummerston
Tommy Boy.................................................Tommy Bracco
Ike...........................................................Brendon Stimson
Mike...................................................................Mike Faist
Max...................................................................Max Ehrich
Katherine Plumber..........................................Kara Lindsay
Darcy.................................................................Max Ehrich
Nuns.................Helen Anker, Julie Foldesi, Laurie Veldheer
Morris Delancey...................................................Mike Faist
Oscar Delancey.........................................Brendon Stimson
Wiesel............................................................John E. Brady
Davey.........................................................Ben Fankhauser
Les...........................Vincent Agnello(eves),RJ Fattori(mats)
Joseph Pulitzer................................................John Dossett
Bunsen.............................................................Nick Sullivan
Seitz.................................................................Mark Aldrich
Hannah........................................................Laurie Veldheer
Snyder...........................................................Stuart Marland
Medda Larkin.....................................................Helen Anker
Medda's Girls..........................Julie Foldesi, Laurie Veldheer
Stage Manager................................................John E. Brady
Mrs. Baum.........................................................Julie Foldesi
Mr. Jacobi.......................................................John E. Brady
Scabs............Scott Shedenhelm, JP Ferreri, Tommy Bracco
Mayor.............................................................John E. Brady
Spot Conlon..................................................Tommy Bracco
York................................................ Andrew Keenan-Bolger
Bill.........................................................Corey Hummerston
Theodore Roosevelt.......................................Kevin Carolan


Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey


- Bob Rendell



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