A movie musical flop from the '90s is set against the dawn of the 20th century in New York City, chronicling the Newsboy Strike of 1899, but the latest stage incarnation of Newsies feels as timely as anything in today's headlines. In fact, this new musical from Disney wunderkind Alan Menken, with lyrics by Jack Feldman and a terrific book by Harvey Fierstein, not only reflects the present day troubles of that corporate dinosaur, the daily newspaper, but also functions as a metaphor for fighting the good fight against corporate greed, including the many factors that go into whether or not a show makes the leap from regional theater to the Great White Way.
Disney's 1992 film tanked at the box office, recouping less than three million of its fifteen million dollar budget, making Newsies one of the biggest budget, lowest grossing live-action films in the studio's 88-year history. Film critic Leonard Maltin dubbed it "Howard the Paperboy," referencing that studio's other live-action, megaton bomb, Howard the Duck. Many of the elements that caused this Golden Raspberry-nominated film to fail remain intact in the latest version, but where anthems like "Carrying the Banner," Seize the Day" and "The World Will Know" played bombastically on the big screen, they manage to rouse here on stage in Newsies the musical.
Most of this alchemy rest squarely on the sculpted shoulders of lead Jeremy Jordan, who plays 17-year-old rabble rouser Jack Kelly. This street kid organizes a strike against real-life heavy Joseph Pulitzer, played well by John Dossett, who passes a tenth-of-a-cent price increase along to his Dickensian distributors in an effort combat lagging newspaper sales. Jordan's youthful rigor lends itself well to the scrappy Kelly role and it's hard not to root for this David "looking to take on a Goliath" at the circulation gate of the tabloid New York World.
A lot of this production's success lies in the autopsy both Jordan and Dossett perform on their characters with the help of some very tight direction from Jeff Calhoun. Where the film's Jack Kelly was voiced by a non-singing (to put it mildly) Christian Bale, Jordan's full-bodied tenor turns the anthems around. He's got the pipes to sell this sometimes schmaltzy stuff. Similarly, where Robert Duvall turned in a rare dud, his cigar-chomping caricature of Pulitzer is rehabilitated here with a subtle performance by Dossett that manages to humanize the newspaper titan and keep him just this side of Spiderman's J. Jonah Jameson.
Harvey Fierstein, who has considerable experience shuttling films to Broadway and back again, performs more surgery on the film that's smart, and gets the musical up and running again. His book cuts Kelly's grizzled mentor, played by Bill Pullman in the film, and replaces him with a spunky, 30s-style reporter Katherine Plumber, played in good, ingenue fashion by Kara Lindsay. Swapping out the bromance for romance makes these ragamuffins all the more Dickensian and also allows for the addition of a fantastic patter number for Lindsay called "Watch What Happens," in which she tries to balance her feelings for Jack with the story she's trying to break on the strike.
Its the many ethical quandaries like this, and the newsboys making headlines up out of thin air to sell papers, that really grounds this musical not only in the turn of the century, but also firmly in the digital age. Sometimes only Katherine's clacking typewriter reminds the audience that this piece is period and it's impossible not to think of recent scandals involving reporters Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass and corporate heavies like Rupert Murdoch. Its interesting that our great, gay theatrical talents are so drawn to the labor movement. All that's missing here to take this musical in Tony Kushner territory, is an eleven o'clock number for Emma Goldman.
There are some missteps. The jockish ensemble can go from cheer-based handsprings to dainty, balletic tours chaînés déboulés and it can look a little ridiculous at times. Most of the movement harks to Paul Taylor's "Brother Can You Spare A Dime" razzmatazz, when he set his Depression-era suite Black Tuesday on the American Ballet Theatre. All that grace recalls the old joke, what's so great about the depression? It strains credulity to imagine these street kids polishing up their arabesque penchées, and Newsies director and choreographer Kenny Ortega's High School Musical movement vocabulary served these kids much better than Christopher Gattelli's does here.
Tobin Ost's set is also problematic. The scenic designer knows from gritty New York realism, having been there before with Brooklyn: The Musical, but here goes for a multi-leveled set that could be dubbed Victorian structural expressionist. The problem is that while his dirty, criss-crossed steel Eiffel Tower of a set certainly evokes the period, it is entirely too large and, in many cases, boxes the actors out of any real, rousing dance numbers. It also wobbles, which is a problem when many of the scenes play out on its balcony-friendly upper tiers.
The third problem is that while showgirl Medda Larkin and her Larkin girls are a welcome distraction and get this show out of the street and into the dancehall, Helen Anker's Medda just lays there. So while all that marabou can stay, Anker can not. No doubt even a stellar performer would have a hard time matching Ann-Margret's vamping in the film, but there's got to be a hungry musical theatre hand who'll at least give it a shot. It's a brief but showy role that many Broadway vets would give their eye teeth to play.
But if Anker is one of the casting problems that can be corrected in this show's heavily-rumored and almost inevitable spring transfer, Jeremy Jordan's is not. While his Jack Kelly is a breakout role, he'll be tied up voicing another notorious hero when he goes up as Clyde Barrow in the musical version of Bonnie & Clyde, also directed by Jeff Calhoun, next month. It's only four short blocks from Clyde's home at the Schoenfeld to the Nederlander, the theatre most likely to host Newsies this spring, but as Jordan's in almost every scene of both musicals, a theatre-to-theatre commute may be impossible. Still, traversing that heavily-trafficked route, he could certainly sell a lot of "papes."