Billy Joel, take note. A group of angry young men has invaded the Nederlander Theater, where the musical adaptation of Newsies is carrying the banner. After a run at the Papermill Playhouse this past summer, the Disney Theatrical Productions adaptation of the 1992 musical film has triumphantly moved to Broadway where it is indeed seizing the day.
The film of the same name, famously starring a youthful, singing and dancing Christian Bale, was a commercial and critical failure. Attacked for its poor direction and choreography (director Kenny Ortega would later claim fame as the man behind the High School Musical franchise), a stage adaptation of Newsies was suggested many times. Twenty years later, it has arrived.
The stage adaptation, which features new songs by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman and a revised script by Harvey Fierstein, follows the same plot as the film. At the turn of the century, homeless young boys earn their living selling “papes” on the streets of New York. When Joseph Pulitzer (John Dossett, having a fine time as the villain) raises the prize the newsboys must pay for the newspapers, they form a union and organize a strike, encouraging the newsboys from the other boroughs to join them in a stand against child labor. The newsies are led by the charismatic Jack (Jeremy Jordan, in a star-making performance) and Davey (Ben Fankhauser, in a pleasantly mellow role) serves as the brains behind the operation while his younger brother Les (Lewis Grosso/Matthew Schechter) provides wittily innocent commentary. Kara Lindsey plays Katherine, a spunky young reporter who simultaneously publicizes the newsboys’ strike and falls in love with Jack. They are joined by Crutchie, a good-natured newsboy with a bad leg, cheerfuly played by Andrew Keenan-Bolger.
Directed by Jeff Calhoun and athletically choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, Newsies is a motivational, but also a surprisingly dark and angry, story. While it narrates an inspiring tale of young people striving to make a difference, it also frankly discusses the horrifyingly dangerous and confining conditions of child labor that existed in this country just over one hundred years ago. The newsies want to sell papers, because it’s all they know. Family, education and further career advancement are not options to them. Davey and Les not orphans but the only reason they are selling papers is because their father was injured at his job and subsequently fired. And while no actual blood is shed onstage (after all, this is a Disney production) violence is portrayed, and it is disturbing to witness these baby-faced (albeit, quite muscular) dancers suffer.
Balancing the darker undertones of Newsies with the bright and bouncy music and dancing is a challenge, but Menkan and Feldman’s score pulses with a frantic urgency underlying its melodies. The motivational anthem “The World Will Know” as well as the slower “Seize the Day” depict the youthful exuberance – and rage – of these boys. This is also illustrated through Gattelli’s choreography, which frequently employs foot stamping and fist pumping (and not the kind seen on Jersey Shore).
The darker side of Newsies is personified in Jack, the leader of the revolution who longs to leave New York and move to Santa Fe, a wish he vocalizes in song numerous times throughout the show. An escapee from the Refuge for homeless children, Jordan’s Jack pulses with anger and longing, although one never knows what exactly for. His meet-cute with the spunky Katherine easily foreshadows the inevitable romance between the two attractive opposites, and one can understand why the vocally independent young woman is drawn to the flirtatious newsboy.
Spunkily played by Lindsey, Katherine is an endearing heroine, and her progressive, female character is welcome in such a male-oriented show. Longing to break free from the Society pages of the paper she writes for, she reports on the newsies’ strike to advance their cause as well as her own career. “Watch What Happens,” her first-act solo about writer’s block and inspiration is a wonderfully self-deprecating but also motivating number. Lindsey is also a nimble dancer, ably joining the boys in several of their numbers.
The story of the strike and the parallel love story is well-executed, but the addition of Jack’s friend Medda Larkin (wonderfully played by the underused Capathia Jenkins) fits into the show awkwardly. Jenkins is African-American, and no one in the script ever comments on her race, despite the fact that an African-American woman performing vaudeville in 1899 – and owning the theater she performs in – would undoubtedly be an unusual and unique situation. Jenkins is a warm and effervescent presence onstage, and her voice is undeniably beautiful. While she is a welcome addition to the cast, one wishes she had been given more to work with.
While Newsies is set in 1899, as Tobin Ost’s set, Sven Ortel’s projections and Jeff Croiter’s lighting all beautifully portray, countless aspects of the story are all too applicable to today’s audience. The idea of fat cat muckity-mucks who are happily oblivious to the conditions of their employees is nothing new to anyone who is not a CEO of a company. Pulitzer’s ability to control the media, which is demonstrated when he forbids all other papers in New York to devote any coverage to the strike, inevitably calls up comparisons to media mogul Rupert Murdoch. And Jack’s longing to disappear where there are “no more fat old men denying me my pay” undoubtedly resonates with many audience members.
What did not resonate, sadly, was the idea that young, innocent and inspired people would form a union today, and actually instigate change with the power of the written word. With the lingering aftermath of Occupy Wall Street only occasionally appearing in today’s headlines, and while no doubt people will post on Twitter and Facebook about Newsies, one hopes the show inspires real action instead.