Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Theater Review: Newsies!

Location: Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ

Website: Official Paper Mill Playhouse site

Starring: Jeremy Jordan, Ben Fankhauser, Kara Lindsay, John Dossett, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Vincent Agnello, R.J. Fattori, Helen Anker

My Review: Like many red-blooded American women who fell into the 11-16 age range in 1992, I was a fan of the Disney movie musical Newsies. It was a lively, energetic story about a team of underdogs fighting injustice, with some catchy tunes and fun dance routines. The fact that it also starred a whole bunch of cute teenaged boys—led by a young Christian Bale, who now probably wouldn’t even admit to having been in the movie—didn’t hurt, either. It wasn’t a perfect movie, and by all counts was a box office flop, but it had charm and many people still remember it fondly. And some of those people make up the production team of Harvey Fierstein, Jack Feldman, and Alan Menken, who have turned Newsies the movie musical into Newsies! the stage musical.

Just like the movie, Newsies! tells the fictionalized true story of a group of underprivileged newsboys trying to make a living hawking newspapers on the streets of New York City in 1899. When the major paper publisher Joseph Pulitzer decides he’ll see more profit by raising—without warning—the distribution cost the newsies have to pay, he gets more than he bargained for. Led by the charismatic Jack Kelly, the newsies organize a union with newboys from every borough of the city and go on strike, refusing to sell any of Pulitzer’s papers until their distribution cost is brought back down. Aiding Jack in his cause are Davey, a newsie new to the job who acts as the brains of the operation, and Katherine, a reporter for a rival newspaper eager to write about real issues who strives to get the newsies’ cause on the front page.

While definitely entertaining, Newsies! is still a flawed production. Luckily, the flaws are mostly covered by the energy the cast brings. Whenever there was a musical number featuring the entire chorus of newsies (and there were several), each actor threw himself into it with such gusto that you almost felt exhausted on their behalf. Most of the dance routines were very acrobatic, so you couldn’t help but marvel at how many back flips an actor could turn and still easily join in singing.

Jeremy Jordan did well as strike leader Jack. He had enough strength and presence that it made sense that the other newsies would want to follow him into battle, but he managed to insert a vein of vulnerability that kept him from seeming like just some arrogant punk kid. As Jack’s reluctant right-hand-man Davey, Ben Fankhauser was alright, though at times came across so nebbishy nervous you had to wonder how he ever thought working as a newsboy would be the best way to earn extra money for his family. John Dossett as Pulitzer is painted a bit too broadly as a typical Disney villain, rather than just a greedy captain of industry who has no clue what it’s like to be one of his many underlings. Dossett does the best he can with the role, but the newly-added song Pulitzer performs about the joys of being rich and powerful is forgettable and unnecessary. I’m surprised that the producers didn’t add a handlebar moustache to his costume just so he could twirl it while cackling maniacally.

As far as the music for Newsies! goes, all the favorites from the movie are there (“Carrying the Banner,” “Santa Fe,” “Seize the Day,” “King of New York”), and in an effort to flesh out show, original composer Alan Menken was called upon to add some new musical numbers, which he does with mixed success. There’s the aforementioned song by Pulitzer, which is, well, for lack of a better word, stupid. Katherine the reporter gets to sing a song while she agonizes over writing her piece on the newsies, which is a nice comical piece. But the biggest clunker was the love song duet between Jack and Katherine, which brings me to the one really huge, glaring, neon problem with Newsies!: The shoehorned in love story.

In the movie version, the newspaper reporter is a man who becomes a father figure of sorts to the mostly orphaned group of newsies, and the closest thing to a love story is a very brief flirtation between Jack and Davey’s sister (who doesn’t exist in this new production). But somewhere, somehow in the development for the stage production, someone decided that what Newsies! really needed was a full-on romance (it didn’t) and that making the reporter a female and pairing her with Jack would happily serve that purpose (it doesn’t).

Putting aside how unnecessary a romantic relationship is in a story about underdogs making a stand, there’s the awkwardness of the unstated age difference to consider: Jack is all of 17 (which he states…in song) and Katherine is old enough to have a job as a reporter, which would put her somewhere well over 17 (right?). Why exactly is a working professional woman pining for a teenage boy? And why are we meant to see that as romantic? Perhaps the producers felt that since Newsies! is sparse on female roles, they would be alienating the female audience if they didn’t make one of the main characters a woman. But making her sort of inappropriately predatory was definitely not the way to go. And as far as I’m concerned, a couple dozen cute dancing boys should be more than enough to attract plenty of female audience members.

Bottom Line: Much like the movie it’s based on, Newsies! isn’t a perfect musical, but it is charming and entertaining. Fans of the movie will enjoy seeing the big musical numbers performed live, and newbies will enjoy the high-energy story about the little guy refusing to back down. Though with its eyes clearly focused on a move to Broadway, Newsies! would be wise to make the role of Katherine a male role again. Then all its lesser flaws may be forgiven.