Seen on Broadway: Newsies delivers. After a string of disappointments Disney Theatrical Productions is making headlines again from an unlikely property, a 1992 movie musical flop that nonetheless charmed a pint-sized generation that lacked proper role models in that moribund time for the form. (Its saving grace is Christian Bale’s star turn in the lead, not the kind of thing we’re used to seeing the future Oscar winner do these days.) Some of the credit must go to book writer Harvey Fierstein, for giving the storyline greater edge, focus, and of course humor, and some as well to Alan Menken (music) and Jack Feldman (lyrics) for augmenting the material with new songs, though the now grown-up ticket buyers tend to respond more enthusiastically to their old favorites. But much of it goes to a youthful cast, who give everything they’ve got to Christopher Gattelli’s athletic, exuberant choreography. Dynamite.
And mention must be made of Tobin Ost’s set. The film took place on drab soundstages that made the mid-sized production look cheap. Rather than replicate Lower Manhattan in 1899 at the Nederlander the designer has created three tenement stairwells that seamlessly interlock and recombine as needed. The sturdy structure performs two functions, by insinuating the entrapment the plucky but impoverished newsboys feel in the canyons of New York—and giving them something to swing on during the big dance numbers. Spoons and the “papes” that the kids sell are also involved in the choreography.
Based on a true incident, Newsies is the story of newsboys, who, feeling exploited by the profit-minded machinations of New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer, form a makeshift union, go on strike, and get the city on their side. (Given the way that Pulitzer, played with a polite snarl by John Dossett, is portrayed in the show I’m glad I didn’t win one of his prizes. Again.) The show centers on one newsie, Jack Kelly (Jeremy Jordan), who reluctantly becomes a hero, prompted by his fellow hawkers and a crusading Nellie Bly type (Kara Lindsay) whose true identity is rather improbable as history but works as romantic drama. More of the show works than I thought it would given the tepid movie, and director Jeff Calhoun (he and the crowd-pleasing Jordan hold their heads up high after the quick death of Bonnie & Clyde earlier this season) and Fierstein don’t overwork the parallels to our present day funk. They don’t have to.
Building links to the past are the rest of a strong design ideally suited for the size of the theatre. Jeff Croiter warms the set’s industrial look with supple lighting. Jess Goldstein finds variety in the ragamuffin costumes of the boys but has more fun with the “scandalous” chanteuse wear of the vaudevillian Medda (Capathia Jenkins) and the other ladies at the theatre where the newsies meet to strategize. The sound design, by Ken Travis, is suitably brassy and voluptuous. And Sven Ortel’s projections, which range from newspaper copy as it is being written to historical imagery that informs the period, are quietly dazzling. Newsies is scheduled to run to August 19, but I suspect it will go into extra editions.