Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 29, 2012
Newsies 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. Orchestrations by Danny Troob. Scenic design by Tobin Ost. Costume design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting design by Jeff Croiter. Sound design by Ken Travis. Projection design by Sven Ortel. Hair & wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Fight Direction by J. Allen Suddeth. Cast: Jeremy Jordan, John Dossett, Kara Lindsay, Capathia Jenkins, Ben Fankhauser, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Lewis Grosso, Matthew J. Schechter, Aaron J. Albano, Mark Aldrich, Tommy Bracco, John E. Brady, Ryan Breslin, Kevin Carolan, Caitlyn Caughell, Kyle Coffman, Mike Faist, Michael Fatica, Julie Foldesi, Garrett Hawe, Thayne Jasperson, Evan Kasprzak, Jess LeProtto, Stuart Marland, Andy Richardson, Jack Scott, Ryan Steele, Brendon Stimson, Nick Sullivan, Ephraim Sykes, Laurie Veldheer, Alex Wong, Stuart Zagnit.
Yes, yes, I know that doesn't matter with this show any more than it did with Disney's last screen-to-stage Broadway outings, Tarzan, Mary Poppins, and The Little Mermaid. But even if the producing company behind a show is determined to fan the flames of public desire until they become a conflagration that consumes all of Broadway, don't prospective ticket buyers at least deserve to know what exactly they're in for?
Of course, they already do to some extent. The movie was not an initial financial hit but it became a cult staple once people realized that live-action singing and dancing onscreen was not to be feared even if predecessors The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast had shown that animation was where the coolness was at. So screenwriters Bob Tzudiker and Noni White's extravaganza about the 1899 New York newsboy's strike captured plenty of imaginations, helped in no small part by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman, who provided a score almost addictive enough to require a 12-step-program recovery process. The only real question about it would seem to be: Why did Disney wait so long to bring this property to the stage?
From a strict quality standpoint (I know, I know, there I go again), the vital concern regarding the Broadway production, which has been directed by Jeff Calhoun and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, becomes: Why didn't Disney wait longer? The machinery was obviously in place: The company has put on a heck of a show reluctantly moving it from the Paper Mill Playhouse (where it opened last September), claiming it was only ever intended for amateur and regional licensing, and then grudgingly extending what was at first a strictly limited engagement into late August; and one can't help but suspect it will have become an open run by the time you read this. So, if only on paper, you'd have every reason to believe the people involved — who include Menken, Feldman, and new librettist Harvey Fierstein — really thought it was time.
If what they've come up with is better than Disney's last three shows, it's at best a hollow victory, because they've replaced the (mild) grit and honest charm of the original with glitz and bombast that annoy rather than electrify. The essentials remain intact: Jack Kelly (Jeremy Jordan), a 17-year old newsboy, organizes a rebellion against the price increase he and his cohorts must pay to buy the copies of The New York World they sell, which sends World owner Joseph Pulitzer (John Dossett) into a fury. It's a workable David-versus-Goliath scenario that hits all the right buttons and even (gasp) educates viewers a bit about the constant struggles among the working man, the owners, and the unions that often come between them. But without warmth, even this surefire story can become oppressive — which it does, rapidly.
The book deserves the lion's share of blame. The relationship between the boys, one of the movie's high points, has been greatly diluted, with major figures Davey (Ben Fankhauser) and Crutchie (Andrew Keenan-Bolger) reduced to barely more than bit parts, and the distinct personalities of them and their friends sanded down to its generic foundation. The Sun reporter who sympathizes with the strike has been combined with Jack's faint love interest to create a new character, Katherine (Kara Lindsay), whom Fierstein has given an eye-rolling (and implausible) connection to Pulitzer. Davey's family, who provided a homespun respite to Jack's chaotic life, has been entirely removed, except for little brother Les (Lewis Grosso and Matthew J. Schechter alternate in the part), who has been transformed from a starry-eyed innocent into an insufferable, one-liner-spewing twit.
Such anglings toward melodrama — Dossett and Stuart Marland, who plays the impresario of a prison-like orphanage, sneer continuously in word and attitude if not in facial fact — may broaden things into more family-friendly territory, but they don't lend substance to a work that needed more rather than less. Neither do Tobin Ost's set, a series of roaming and rotating scaffolds that reduce Victorian Manhattan to a lurching tangle of fire escapes, or Gattelli's dances, which more excitedly display the ballet-drilled proclivities of the gifted dancing corps (including standout soloist Thayne Jasperson, from So You Think You Can Dance) than they do illuminate story or character. Jess Goldstein's costumes, Jeff Croiter's lights, and Sven Ortel's projections, which summon the atmosphere of the era with a minimum of cartoonishness, are more satisfying.
As are most of the major songs, which generally remain intact. That means you'll be struggling for weeks to get the exuberant and inspiring "Carrying the Banner," "The World Will Know," "Seize the Day," and "King of New York" out of your head. But the sentimental and on-edge "Santa Fe" does not fare as well. Jack's dream of a place where he can escape his overcrowded drudgery of poverty has been bidirectionally rejiggered to serve as both a dispiritingly hopeless opening and a headache-inducing Act I finale that's more about high notes than soaring spirits. With the exception of "Watch What Happens," an unpredictable quasi-Sondheimian ramble for Katherine as she balances her burgeoning career with her emerging feelings for Jack and his cause, the new compositions are negligible.
The performances aren't much better. Jordan is unquestionably better here than he was in the season's earlier snoozer, Bonnie & Clyde, and in tenacity and voice he displays genuine leading man potential. But the smarmy anger he brings to Jack remains at one level of simmer throughout, where additional colors might more effectively convey how much the young man wants this more structured life. Better is Lindsay, who shines as Katherine evolves more gracefully from a cub reporter to a rabble-rouser in her own right, and sings with an unforced determination. Dossett and Capathia Jenkins, as a good-natured music-hall madam, are fine given what they're asked to do — which isn't much.
Not that anything else about Newsies suggests going the extra mile: It fills a niche and a checkbox, but otherwise leaves itself and you empty. Not that the majority of audiences will or even should care; if all they want is safe entertainment for ages six to 96, Disney provides it better than anyone and this is as harmless a product as any. But for anyone wondering, for whatever unthinkable reason, whether this show makes any news, the headline is, at its most optimistic, "Eh."