Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Disney's Newsies: The Musical at Paper Mill Playhouse

In 1992, Walt Disney Pictures released Newsies, a live-action musical film about the newsboys strike of 1899.  It featured a strong score with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman.   The film cost $15 million dollars and flopped, only grossing a little under $3 million.  However, the film gained fans with regular play on the Disney Channel and through home video.   As one of the few films with boys as leads instead of a princess it has grown into a cult classic.  This is despite the fact that the film received a lot of negative reviews and was nominated for several Razzie awards, winning the worst song award for High Times, Hard Times.

Flash forward to 2011, where Paper Mill Playhouse located in Millburn, New Jersey has mounted the world premiere production of Disney's Newsies: The Musical.  The team of Mr. Menkin and Mr. Feldman have expanded their score, retaining most of the popular anthems and discarding a few of the clunkers (so long High Times, Hard Times).  Acclaimed playwright, Harvey Fierstein has written the book, streamlining the original screenplay by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White.  The result is a high energy stage production perfect for the entire family.  While the script could use a few revisions here and there it is a wonderful premiere for a musical that is sure to have many more productions to come.

Disney's Newsies: The Musical takes place in 1899 New York City.  The newsies are the boys who sell the "papes."  Many live on the streets, others work long hours to help their struggling families.  The leader of the newsies is Jack Kelly, a talented artist who dreams of going west for a better life.  His fellow newsies include Crutchie, struggling with a disability, and two new kids, brothers Davey and Les, whose father was fired after being injured in a factory job. When Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the World desides to raise the price the newsboys must pay for the papers they sell, he convinces William Randolph Hearst and the other publishers to follow suit.  The boys decide to form a union and strike until the price is cut and the publishers agree to buy back any papers the boys can't sell.   Jack meets girl reporter  Katherine Plumber, who dreams of a promotion from writing the society page to the news beat.  Together the newsies and Katherine take on the world in a fight ultimately for the benefit of all of the oppressed child workers of the city. 

The film is deeply beloved by a lot of people who may not like the changes made to some of the characters and to parts of the story.  However, Mr. Fierstein has reshaped the script so that the focus remains on Jack and the newsies strike.  Therefore some elements have been eliminated and other plot points and characters reimagined.  For example, Katherine Plummer, a fictionalized Nellie Bly-type reporter, replaces Denton, the seasoned newsman of the film.  Her character also provides a more satisfying love interest for Jack than the girl in the film.

There are a few moments in the script that need a bit of polishing.  The adult female characters are not well fleshed out.  Medda the vaudeville owner is here, but she has as little relevance to the overall story as she did in the film   Joseph Pulitzer is written as a stronger villain, but he's a bit over the top in his villainy. That is not to say that John Dossett does not give a good performance.  He does, especially with his new song, The News is Getting Better.  It would help if he had a bit of nuance added to his character, particularly with an act two revelation.  That revelation, involving Katherine's background, seems to come out of nowhere and is a bit jarring.  However, later in act two when two young men assist the newsies with printing their own paper and make an amusing revelation of their own then Katherine's revelation makes sense.  Perhaps a few additional hints before the big reveal would make this plot point less jarring.

The other major script change is diminishing the threat of the boy's jail, The Refuge.  Our hero, Jack is still a fugitive from this place and one of the main characters, Crutchie, is arrested and taken there, but since we don't see The Refuge and its cruelty, the threat of it is lessened and the role of Warden Snyder and his comeuppance seems tacked on and doesn't bring the satisfaction that it did in the film.

As for the overall production itself, Disney's Newsies: The Musical is a rousing, high energy show filled with enthusiastic performances and wonderful production values.   The multi-level set, designed by Tobin Ost, reflects the industrial setting, at once liberating in its versatility and oppressive as it can restrict the freedom of the newsboys.  Sven Ortel's projections give context to the story, giving a sense of time and place.  Jess Goldstein's costumes and Charles LaPointe's hair and wig design evoke the turn of the 20th century while providing ease of movement for the vigorous dancing. 

Choreographer Christopher Gattelli has created dances that combine breathtaking athleticism and pure artistry.   In particular the show-stopping tap-tastic King of New York, which opens act two is a highlight.  But, it is the inventive steps of the show's best known anthem, Seize the Day that is the choreographer's triumph.   From the emotional stomps that evoke the newsies angry decision to strike to the newsprint soft shoe to the heart stopping leaps and flips, this is bravura dancing at its best.

Director Jeff Calhoun guides well his young cast.  Ben Fankhauser has a clear strong voice in Seize The Day and grows throughout the performance as the bookish young man who helps shape the strike. His younger brother, Les, played at evening performances by Vincent Agnello, matinees by RJ Fattori, is both feisty and adorable.  Andrew Keenan-Bolger brings to the role of Crutchie a real emotional core,  his crippled boy who dreams of a better life captures the audience's heart and when the character disappears for most of act two following his arrest he is greatly missed.

Kara Lindsay as Katherine is a strong, confident young woman ready to help the newsies take on the establishment.  Her new song, the pattering Watch What Happens is the best of the new songs added to the score.  Ms. Lindsay has a pleasing voice and a spunky attitude that is perfect for her girl reporter.

And then there's our hero, Jack Kelly himself.  Jeremy Jordan is a star in the making.  He is a leading man with an amazing voice who brings alternating layers of confidence and vulnerability.   Mr. Jordan's charisma shines forth every time he is on the stage.  Whether singing of Jack's dream life in Santa Fe or leading the newsies in almost every ensemble piece, Mr. Jordan gives a commanding performance.  Broadway is in for a treat when Mr. Jordan next appears in the new musical Bonnie and Clyde next year.

Disney's Newsies: The Musical is a well conceived first production.  The show is sure to do well once the the amateur and high school rights become available.  Yet, with a little revision Newsies: The Musical has a chance to be a great show.   One hopes that Disney Theatrical Productions considers giving it more chances on the professional level.   This is a show that deserves to find itself on the Great White Way.

Disney's Newsies: The Musical will be performed at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey through October 16, 2011.  For tickets and other performance information, please visit www.PaperMill.org

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