Broadway Theater Review: NEWSIES (Nederlander)

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by Thomas Antoinne on March 30, 2012

in Theater-New York

GOOD NEWSIES, BAD NEWSIES

A few months ago, the New York theatre community was all abuzz with the announcement that the Paper Mill Playhouse production of Newsies was transferring to Broadway for a limited run.  Cynical insiders were convinced the move was solely for the benefit of Disney’s legal team who could finally control all licensing issues associated with lawsuits; illegal high school and community theatre productions of Newsies have become a major corporate inconvenience.  The timing of Spring 2012 couldn’t be better.  Due to a perceived weak season for new musicals, rumors of a Tony sweep were already in the air.  Furthermore, talk of who might replace Jeremy Jordan (the lead) if Bonnie & Clyde found its audience added to the mix of excitement and uncertainty.  With the official opening of Newsies, the only positive news is that Jeremy Jordan was indeed available, and he turns on his best star wattage to light up a lackluster show.

Newsies Photo 3Newsies has a checkered past.  Originally conceived as a movie musical, it was a veritable flop when it was released in 1992.  Questionable source material, sonorous pacing, and an imperfect cast relegated it to that late 20th century period that almost killed the movie musical.  Still, before High School Musical and Glee, there was a whole generation of ‘tweens who needed their own canon and adopted Newsies.  They took comfort in the upbeat songs by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, solid, wholesome melodies, with good-hearted messages about “seizing the day.”  With the help of youtube postings, Disney discovered that high schools were transcribing and performing the show without paying any royalties.  Newsies had taken on cult status, and Disney wanted a piece of the profits.  Hence, Paper Mill Playhouse mounted its production last year, which led to a solid NY Times notice, which led to the current Broadway mounting.

Newsies Photo 1The plot of the Newsies film was very straightforward, predictable, and dull.  When greedy Joseph Pulitzer raises the cost of selling papers, tough-yet-sensitive-artist-orphan Jack Kelly, organizes a newsboys strike for a David and Goliath face-off.  The challenge in re-working Newsies was to keep all the favorite songs, but improve the clunky story.  Labor union musicals are generally a tough sell.  By hiring Harvey Fierstein to re-work the book, the new Newsies Broadway musical contains one big improvement – and many missteps.  The improvement is the addition of a new character, Katherine, a love interest for Jack.  In the end, all successful musicals are love stories, and it was probably the right thing to do.  Menken and Feldman have also written several new songs that manage to support the new story, while not getting in the way.

Newsies Photo 6To incorporate a new love story, however, the rest of the book gets thrown off-balance and much of the story is now under-developed.  Fierstein’s new book moves “Santa Fe,” Jack Kelly’s gorgeous “I Want” ballad, to the opening number.  The audience is barely introduced to Jack before we’re told what he wants.  Without knowing anything about the character or where our sympathies should lie, the audience engagement and emotional involvement doesn’t have a chance.  The new love story also comes at the expense of developing supporting characters.  Andrew Keenan-Bolger’s Crutchie (the embodiment of handi-capable gumption) all but disappears in Act Two when Crutchie should be getting more stage time and breaking our hearts, rendering any emotional release at the end completely unearned.  The story of Davey and Les, the supportive intellectual brothers, is reduced to a few lines of exposition, and they become little more than comic devices in Fierstein’s uneven script.  Ultimately, the new libretto feels more like work-for-hire sprinkled with jokes that pander to the bridge and tunnel crowd.  It’s a wasted opportunity that could have been used to uncover the heart of the story.

Newsies Photo 7Thank goodness Jeremy Jordan was available to play Jack Kelly.  Aside from the smoke and mirrors involving Disney Legal and the licensing issues, the real reason to mount this production of Newsies on Broadway is to anoint Jeremy Jordan the new Prince of Broadway.  His Jack Kelly is one for the books.  He sings his heart out, has impeccable phrasing, dances like a young Gene Kelly, and breaks your heart one minute while making you laugh the next.  There are a handful of triple threats working on Broadway today, but not one young leading man with the charisma, full-on talent, and star quality of Jeremy Jordan.  Those who saw him in Bonnie & Clyde knew they were witnessing a rare talent, but the mediocrity of that material undermined his work in every scene.  In Newsies, he manages to transcend the second-rate book and sell the paint-by-number story to deliver a true star turn.  It’s been a while since Broadway has been this excited about the arrival of a new star on The Great White Way.  In Newsies, Jeremy Jordan is the genuine article.

Newsies Photo 5Most of the ensemble is from the Paper Mill cast.  You probably haven’t heard of most of them, which is a double-edge sword.  On one hand, it’s easier to imagine unknown performers as actual turn-of-the-century newsies.  But the reality is regional theatre is filled with competent performers who are just shy of the mark.  Like the recent revival of Ragtime, transferring a regional theatre production to Broadway (except for Jeremy Jordan’s performance) is a revelation only of the lack of authentic star wattage onstage.

That’s not to say there’s no talent on stage.  Andrew Keenan-Bolger as Crutchie, Kara Lindsay as love interest Katherine, and John Dosset as Joseph Pulitzer perform their roles very competently.  And Matthew J. Schechter (alternating with Lewis Grosso) delivers the comic lines of the diminutive moppet Les very capably.  However, for the price of a Broadway ticket, you want more than the very competent and the very capable.

Newsies Photo 8The producers must have been aware of this as they surround the substandard book and workman-like performances with Christopher Gattelli’s non-stop dance numbers that unfortunately bring to mind an all-male production of Bring It On, more modern-day male cheerleaders than turn-of-the-century newsboys.  The performers’ subtext screams, “Look at me, Ma, I’m doing gymnastics on Broadway!”  The intensity gratefully stops at the opening of Act Two for “King of New York,” an old fashioned, show-stopping tap number.  For once the desperation to please is replaced by the sheer pleasure of performing.

Director Jeff Calhoun keeps the show moving at breakneck speed, as if he were afraid the audience was suffering from chronic ADD.  It’s a Disney production, so the tech is uniformly state-of-the-art.  The orchestrations and vocals are flawless.  Yet, the show as a whole lacks a soul – until the spotlight finds Jeremy Jordan – and once again he brings Newsies to life.

Newsies Photo 4

photos by Deen van Meer and T. Charles Erickson/Disney Theatricals

Newsies
Disney Theatrical
Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street
scheduled to end on August 24, 2014
for tickets, visit Newsies The Musical

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Marcella Martinez May 9, 2012 at 6:38 pm

Any ideas when it is coming to Chicago?

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