Review: ‘Newsies the Musical’ on Broadway
While Disney on Broadway has been responsible for bringing such beloved Disney films to the stage as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Mary Poppins, there has always been one film that theatre lovers and Disney fans alike have demanded to see on stage: Newsies. Originally a box office and critical flop when it debuted in 1992, Newsies has gone down in history as a cult hit, and its infectious songs and clear musical structure have made fans wonder for years why it hadn’t yet joined the ranks of Disney films on stage. Well, the time has finally come, as Newsies made its official Broadway debut at the Nederlander Theater earlier this month. While this energetic and entertaining production certainly makes one wonder how the show is only now making its theatrical debut, it is clear that there could not have been a better way than this production to introduce this new adaptation to the world.
To begin with, it should be noted that while the film’s main storyline of a group of newsboys going on strike to challenge the system and fight for their rights is still the same, this musical is not a direct copy of the original film. In bringing Newsies to the stage, book writer Harvey Fierstein has made numerous changes to the plot that improve upon the original while still remaining true to its original spirit and story. The most noticeable of these changes is the creation of Katherine in the place of Bill Pullman’s journalist character in the film. A young female journalist who decides to help get the Newsies’ story heard while also catching the eye of the newsboys’ charismatic leader Jack Kelly, Katherine is a welcome addition to the story, broadening the show’s theme of making one’s voice heard in the face of adversity while providing a more integrated love story than the one between Jack and David’s sister Sarah in the film.
This new book is aided by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman’s rousing and catchy score, which retains the popular anthems of the film (“Carrying the Banner,” “King of New York,” etc.) while adding in some additional new songs as well. While the songs from the film remain the most successful and memorable in the score, a particular highlight from the new additions is the song “Watch What Happens,” a solo for Katherine as she battles writer’s block to put the story of the newsies’ struggle on paper. Composed largely as a frenetic patter-song that is deftly navigated by the immensely talented actress Kara Lindsay, the song serves as the perfect introduction to this new character, as her plight as a female journalist parallels the struggle of the newsies that she is fighting for.
Through their adaptation of the film, Menken, Feldman, and Fierstein have managed to create a highly appealing show that won’t go down as one of the greatest musicals of all time, but is nevertheless thoroughly entertaining. While filled with hummable tunes and uplifting enough to have wide appeal for theatergoers of all ages, the content of the show itself never truly manages to be very complex or achieve a sense of unpredictability that keeps the audience hanging on to see what will happen next. It always feels like the show only barely scratches the surface, and each character and relationship could easily be more developed. Instead, it is the cast and way that the show has been brought to life onstage that truly elevates Newsies to the rank of must-see theatre. Led by director Jeff Calhoun, the vibrancy, enthusiasm, and creativity with which Newsies is told serves as a reminder of just how much power the medium of live theatre holds.
In creating the world in which the newsies live and fight, set designer Tobin Ost has created a simplistic and versatile industrial structure that perfectly evokes turn-of-the-century New York City while being able to transform into each different setting that the newsies need. Aided by only a few extra set pieces, the set manages to perfectly set the scene without upstaging the action taking place onstage. In his direction, Calhoun has managed to utilize these versatile metal structures in a creative and effective way; the newsies move the structures and climb up and down them in a way that keeps the action onstage from ever becoming static or the set appearing too plain.
Bringing the show to life is a talented and enthusiastic cast that keeps the show fresh and full of excitement. In addition to the aforementioned Ms. Lindsay, Jeremy Jordan stars as the charismatic and artistic leader Jack Kelly. Perfectly capturing the necessary combination of masculinity, vigor, and sensitivity for the role, Mr. Jordan carries the show with ease, becoming a believable and magnetic leader. Another standout in the cast is Ben Fankhauser as Davey, Jack’s partner in bringing the strike to fruition, who manages to transform effortlessly from a shy newcomer to a strong and effective leader. While Fankhauser isn’t given his own solo song in the show, the phrases that he sings on his own and together with Mr. Jordan are some of the show’s greatest musical highlights. In the adult roles, John Dossett has the perfect amount of pretention and insidiousness in his portrayal of the villainous Joseph Pulitzer, and Capathia Jenkins shines in her small role as the vaudeville performer Medda Larkin, whose role has been cut down significantly from the film and the show’s original run at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
But the real stars of Newsies are the newsies themselves, the talented ensemble of young men that make up the group of newsboys fighting to be heard. This unstoppably enthusiastic group of true triple-threat performers invigorate the show each time they step onstage, giving the musical an unrelenting momentum and energy that spreads to the audience and keeps each viewer’s eyes glued to the stage. While Alan Menken’s score is filled with soaring phrases and catchy tunes, it is the power with which the newsboys sing each note that truly brings these anthems to life and persuades us to support the newsies’ cause. While the audience ultimately knows what’s going to happen in the end (this IS Disney, after all), it is the infectious energy and earnestness that these performers bring to their role as newsies that keep the audience involved in the newsies’ struggle and invested in their success, always ready to burst into applause once their songs and dances end.
And oh, what dances they are. While there are many reasons to go see Newsies, perhaps the biggest is the awe-inspiring dance numbers, choreographed by Christopher Gattelli. Much like in the 1992 film, these newsies express their anger, joy, and solidarity through dance, and Gattelli has choreographed a host of athletic dance numbers filled with acrobatic tricks, turns, and leaps that perfectly complement Menken’s rousing songs and bring the energy of Newsies to even greater heights. The amazing dancers that make up the ensemble attack each step with a clear sense of purpose and conviction that makes their determination to be heard even more apparent. Gattelli’s choreography seems to perfectly complement each dancer, and watching these talented boys seemingly burst through the stratosphere as they leap and tumble across the stage is truly exhilarating. A particular highlight dance-wise is the song “Seize the Day,” in which the ensemble members dance on newspapers, perform acrobatic tricks, and leap into the air in such a way that seems to perfectly encapsulate the simultaneous frustration and newfound freedom that the newsies are experiencing. The dancers’ enthusiasm for these dances never even hints at wavering, and being able to see these already amazing steps performed with such an unbridled passion and unrelenting energy is truly electrifying.
There are many Broadway shows out there that rely on spectacle through set pieces or celebrity stunt casting to find success. But by simply relying on the talents and energy of its amazing and hard-working performers, Newsies manages to create an even more awe-inspiring experience than any grand set or well-known celebrity could ever hope to achieve. While it’s easy to experience the story of Newsies through the original film or even the recently released Original Broadway Cast Recording, the experience of seeing the show live on Broadway is one that truly cannot be replicated. Newsies the Musical is the rare Broadway film adaptation that not only improves upon the original, but becomes its own unique entity that makes it seem like being on stage has always been the true way the story should be told. Whether you’re a fan of the movie or are just encountering this heart-warming story for the first time, the pure enthusiasm and infectious energy that pervade each moment of Newsies on Broadway truly makes this show a must see.
Newsies the Musical is currently playing at Broadway’s Nederlander Theater. For more information about the show and to purchase tickets, visit www.newsiesthemusical.com.