I hated the movie "Newsies." Hated hated hated it. I found it plodding, forced, cloying, and resolutely earthbound. My roommate at the time, Todd, has a father who's an actor, and his father appeared in "Newsies" as Robert Duvall's assistant or something. Todd and I went to see the movie together, and when we exited the theater, I turned to him and said, "If that movie kills movie musicals, I'm going to blame your dad. You know that, right?"
Well, "Newsies" did kill movie musicals, at least for a while, but I was big enough not to blame Todd's dad. (At least not entirely.) And, for me, "Newsies" has always been a sort of short-hand reference for bad movie musicals.
So, when I heard that Disney Theatricals was planning a stage version of the movie, I was understandably nonplussed. But the word from Paper Mill Playhouse was good. Really good. So good, in fact, that although the production was initially intended as a kick-start for a licensing property, Disney found itself with an unexpected hit on its hands.
A Broadway transfer became inevitable, and the show has become a smash, even garnering eight Tony nominations in the process. Does the show deserve its smash-hit status? Well, there's no question that the stage version of Newsies represents a huge improvement over the movie. (How could it not be?) In fact, if you separate the show itself from the hype -- and the squealing fangirls -- Newsies represents a reasonably entertaining, if somewhat overblown production.
On the plus side, this might just be Disney's best stage show ever, mainly because it focuses mostly on the story and not on visual effects or spectacle. Also, director Jeff Calhoun has whipped the cast into an energetic froth of high spirits and vivid characterization. And the cast members themselves are pretty darned appealing, led by the strikingly charismatic Jeremy Jordan as the central newsie, Jack Kelly. Jordan, who almost made Bonnie & Clyde worth sitting through, gives a similarly memorable performance here, imbuing the role with so much more personality and vibrancy than the young Christian Bale did in the movie. And Jordan's singing is far superior to Bale's.
In terms of the score, the songs were never really the problem with the movie. They were just presented very poorly, both in terms of the singing voices of the cast and Kenny Ortega's leaden choreography. The songs actually represent Alan Menken at his most tuneful and some genuinely interesting lyrics by Jack Feldman. Among the new songs written for the stage show is an ambitious and engaging character number called "Watch What Happens" for Katherine, a new character, the female reporter who takes up the cause of the newsies and becomes Jack Kelly's love interest. But then there's "Something to Believe in," a ballad that's every bit as bland and uninteresting as its title.
Overall, Newsies is a charmer, but there are some considerable flaws. The abundant and strenuous choreography by Christopher Gattelli becomes a bit relentless. The dance numbers are so copious, and so in-your-face energetic, that it starts to feel like a competition for who can leap the highest, twirl the fastest, or do the most amazing series of leaps. Most of the numbers feature showboating acrobatics, and as a result the scrappy crew of supporting players eventually comes off a bit self-satisfied.
That said, the show certainly has its share of showstoppers, including the act-two crowd-pleaser "King of New York," a joyous tap dance for the ensemble. And the dance is, for the most part, thematically linked to the needs of the story line (i.e. not merely decorative), including the angry dance when the newsies go on strike and show their displeasure by stomping on their newspapers, a rousing moment that is nonetheless brazenly stolen from "Summer Stock" with Gene Kelly. (Watch the original number.)
(Oh, and a special shout-out to Boston Conservatory sophomore Jack Scott making his Broadway debut as a swing on this production. Because Gattelli's choreography is so physically demanding -- i.e. injury-inducing -- Jack has seen plenty of stage time, including the night that I saw the show. You go, Jack.)
The new libretto by Harvey Fierstein is full of good humor, but it's also full of holes. At least three of the show's significant characters disappear for huge stretches of time. At first, Fierstein seems to be setting up Medda, a female African-American vaudeville performer, as a significant presence in the show, but she basically sings one song in the middle of act one and never does anything else. Joseph Pulitzer, the show's antagonist, has one number at the top of act one, and then disappears until Act 2.
The seemingly major character with the shudder-inducing name Crutchie is missing for most of the second act, even though we're supposed to feel outrage and sympathy because he's been thrown into a home for wayward boys. Also, most of the newsies don't emerge as individual characters, but rather as a monolith of back-flipping urchins. Also, Jack Kelly has so many changes of heart in act 2, I got a bit of character whiplash. In standing up to Pulitzer, Jack caves and then finds his backbone twice in rapid succession.
So Newsies is certainly not perfect, but it's undeniably infectious and entertaining. As of this writing, the show's limited run has been extended to August 19th. If the show scoops up a bunch of Tonys, you can be damn sure that date will change. One thing Disney has learned from its limited DVD releases: limit the supply and you increase the demand. But I get the feeling that Newsies will be hanging around on Broadway for a long time to come.