This re-edited review of Newises reflects the production that ran last February at the Arsht Center. The North American Tour, which is now playing The Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Ft. Lauderdale through November 29, features several new principal cast members.
By Bill Hirschman
It’s fortunate that Newsies is a dance-centric musical because much of the lyrics and dialogue were nearly impossible to understand in the national tour visiting the Arsht Center from Broadway Across America.
But that dancing is spectacular: scruffy adorable newsboys spinning and leaping airborne in unison at the slightest provocation, jumping on tables for a pounding tap dance, executing backflips, cartwheels, handsprings and somersaults as if it was as natural as waltzing. And all done with an infectious exuberance. They seem to be having a good time and likely you will, too.
Besides the aural problem, this crowd-pleasing show still is nakedly manipulative with a by-the-numbers committee-manufactured feel. It is undeniably entertaining for audiences of all ages, but there is rarely a moving or genuine moment in the entire show.
Very loosely based on a real event in 1899, the show tracks a gang of adorable scruffy New York City newsboys (anybody remember that profession?) as they strike Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World when the media baron cuts their meager pay.
The band is led by the adorably tough on the exterior but heart of gold elder statesman (at 17 years old) Jack Kelly, an orphan like most them are. He savors living on the street and sleeping on rooftops (obviously this is not set in January) with his buddy, the adorable crippled Crutchie (I’m not making this up.) He keeps butting heads with an adorably aspiring female reporter, Katherine, who, of course, is destined to be a love interest.
Like those World War II movies with a platoon comprised of distinct easy-to grasp stereotypes, Jack’s adorable Newsies crew includes “the thoughtful one,” the nervy little kid, the one wearing glasses called (seriously) “Specs,” and every ethnicity and nationality in what seems a turn-of-the-century Lower East Side chapter of the United Nations. For better or worse, most of the cast have the thickest Brooklyn-Bronx-Queens accents you have heard outside of an old Bowery Boys movie. Kelly in particular adorably spits words out of the side his mouth like James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson.
They take on Pulitzer, his strike-breaking goons, and the crooked sadistic head of a juvenile center, Miss Hannigan (whoops, wrong show; his name is Snyder). To succeed they will have to mobilize not only the newsboys in all five boroughs, but every exploited child worker in the region.
Two surprises: Nobody dies to ramp up the pathos quotient, and Pulitzer may be beaten but he remains an unrepentant Tea Party member wishing he ran a business in a right-to-work state like Florida.
But the primary virtue of Newsies (sorry, Disney Newsies, not even Disney’s Newsies) is Christopher Gattelli’s joyous Tony-winning choreography as executed by a reasonably large cast who remain pretty sharp since the tour began last fall.
The show is adapted from a 1992 Disney movie musical starring a young Christian Bale, a middle-aged Bill Pullman, an elderly Robert Duvall and a we’ll-let-it-go Ann-Margret. It flopped at the box office and was panned by critics, but somehow it attracted a cult following among tweens and pre-adolescents who are now old enough to have children of their own. It was a typical Disney rose-colored glasses sanitized Horatio Alger story.
The stage musical bowed at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 2011 and moved the following year to Broadway with new young star Jeremy Jordan in the lead. The energetic dancing enraptured a young audience and it played more than 1,000 performances before closing last August.
I have only seen perhaps a half-hour of the movie total over the years, but it seemed risibly ludicrous whenever the boys broke into song. Oddly enough, though, that paradigm is so ingrained in theater audiences’ expectations that here it doesn’t seem at all jarring.
Alan Mencken’s driving upbeat music is also schematic but effective, akin to the tunes in all those vanilla cartoon movies that he wrote for Disney such as Aladdin. (Beauty and the Beast notwithstanding). It’s hard to believe this is the same guy who gave us the wonderful Little Shop of Horrors. Jack Feldman’s lyrics, the ones we could hear, seemed adequate but nothing remotely memorable. Both won the Tony Award in 2012 for best score. The script by Harvey Fierstein implies that he had gambling debts somewhere to pay off.
Generally, you feel your buttons being pushed. Our hero, who has artistic talent, sings of his dream of moving to Santa Fe, and it’s difficult to hear with a straight face if you’ve seen The Book of Mormon. Try not to think of Mormon’s satirically overwrought paean to a domain of dreams, “Salt Lake City.” When the boys proclaim their rousing anthem “Seize The Day,” you might have trouble forgetting Robin Williams in The Dead Poets Society. “O Captain, My Captain.”
The cast of ragamuffins with smudged cheeks is serviceable including Dan DeLuca as the adorably pugnacious street kid and future AFL-CIO president Jack; Stephanie Styles as the adorably spunky Katherine, Broadway vet Steve Blanchard as the adorable greedhead Pulitzer, Zachary Sayle as the adorably loyal and woebegone Crutchie, Jacob Kemp as the adorably intelligent Davey, Angela Grovey who delivers a powerful belt as Medda Larkin, the adorable but inexplicably African-American vaudeville entertainer who owns her own theater. And then there are the other adorable urchins whose adorable character names include Mush, Romeo, Elmer, Finch and Race as in racetrack as opposed to race relations.
The intriguing set design by Tobin Post married to lighting by Jeff Croiter focused on three three-story tall towers that looked like a cross of Erector set trestles, a jungle gym of fire escapes, the set for Hollywood Squares and the rabbit warren of crew quarters from the sci-fi film Outland. The structures moved forward and back and rotated, while screens lowered regularly for scene-setting projections by Sven Ortel and Daniel Brodie. Begrudging credit is due original director Jeff Calhoun for imaginatively using the edifice so well in his staging.
Newsies runs Nov. 17-29 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Broadway Across America-Fort Lauderdale series, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Performances are 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time 2 ½ hours including 20-minute intermission. Tickets approximately $35-$150. For more information, call 954-462-0222 or visit BrowardCenter.org.