Sunday, April 1, 2012

Review of "Newsies"

Newsies, the new Disney musical that opened on Broadway last week, is irresistibly close to being an out and out triumph. What makes the show such a sensation also contributes to its one significant flaw. Now, don’t get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed Newsies. The production contains all the ingredients of a successful show—a rousing score; crowd-pleasing dance numbers; an impressive, stage encompassing set; an engaging cast; a charismatic lead, and even a cute, adorable little tyke.

Based on a 1992 Disney movie, the show, slightly altered from the film version, tells the story of an 1899 successful strike by the newsies (the orphans and street urchins that sold the daily newspapers on the streets of New York) against the powerful Joseph Pulitzer and his journal, The World.

The first act is almost flawless with a tight narrative punctuated with solid songs and some of the best production numbers you will see on Broadway today. The musical begins with the introductions of two of the main newsies, Jack Kelly, portrayed with a spunky self-confidence by Jeremy Jordan; and his crippled pal, Crutchie, played with determination and grit by Andrew Keenan-Bolger. Soon the other boys, a ragamuffin group, enter the scene and, from there, the storyline quickly develops as the young men decide to strike over an increase in their upfront costs (newsies needed to buy their newspapers that were, then, resold at a slightly higher price). Fortifying the assemblage’s mettle are two fresh recruits to the newsie ranks—Davey, played with an initial immaturity and then a swaggering resolve by Ben Fankhauser; and his younger brother, Les, at this performance played with an impish pluckiness by Lewis Grotto.

In the end, the newsies triumph over their Goliath-sized opponents and there is a very happy, Disney-esque, ending.

The strength of Newsies, which will ensure its long and profitable stay in New York (if Disney accedes to an open-ended run), is the full-throttled production numbers designed by choreography Christopher Gattelli, especially in “Seize the Day” and “King of New York.” There probably has not been such muscular and athletic dance routines on Broadway since West Side Story.

Director Jeff Calhoun, who works seamlessly with Choreographer Gattelli, is able to corral the newsies into a cohesive group of performers, conveying both a sense of pathos, hardship, and comradeship of the street-wise youths. He is less successful in the scenes, few as they are, with the adult performers.

The score, by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, consists mostly of compositions from the movie version (which they also wrote), with a few new songs augmenting their earlier efforts. The score works best during the more up tempo numbers especially when the newsies are involved.

The cast is led by Jeremy Jordan, who reprises his critically acclaimed performance from the Paper Mill Playhouse production earlier this year. Jordan is combative, suave, and vulnerable as the head newsie, Jack Kelly. He is the glue that keeps not only the assemblage of outcasts together, but pretty much the whole show. You also have to feel good for the actor. After leaving Newsies he went in to star in the ill-fated Bonnie & Clyde on Broadway. After that musical’s quick demise he was able to slide back into the role of Jack Kelly and into a show that should be one of the hottest tickest on Broadway. Ben Fankhauser, making his Broadway debut, gives his character, Davey, a bit more shading then the other newsies as he grows from an innocent outsider of the group to a more resolute, strong-willed instigator. The other young men in the production, well, strong acting is not really required for their parts. Delivering a smart aleck remark and palling around is pretty much what is required, besides being able to dance up a storm. The adult actors, while competent and professional, serve more to keep the storyline flowing.

The mostly large-scale, erector set scenic design by Tobin Ost emulates the fire escapes and claustrophobic nature of the late 19th and early 20th century tenements of New York City.

So, what is the significant flaw I mentioned at the onset of my review? The culprit is our expectations and the book by Harvey Fierstein, namely Act Two. The trouble is we have been mesmerized and exhilarated throughout the musical by the electrifying dance routines. The second act then begins with what is the best production number of the show, “King of New York.” Suddenly, as if the creative team realized they needed to finish up the show, the rip roaring choreography, what the audience has come to expect, is scaled back in order to tie up all the loose plot lines. From this point, the storytelling becomes more choppy and less fluid. Director Jeff Calhoun does his best, but too many scenes become stilted. The love interest between Jack and Katherine, a beguiling and charming subplot in Act One, all but fizzles.

But this blemish is not enough of a weakness to derail what is a family-friendly, resoundingly successful piece of musical theater entertainment. Newsies should have a long and healthy run on Broadway.

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