Friday, April 20, 2012

The King of New York? Not Really

Review:  Newsies

Jeremy Jordan and the cast of Newsies
Confession:  I have never seen Newsies, the flop film from 1992 that has become a cult classic in the two decades since its release.  Which means that when I sat down to view the stage adaptation, currently playing to packed houses at the Nederlander Theatre, I did so without any preconceived notions about what it can or should be.  And while the show I saw was a perfectly acceptable musical comedy, I simply couldn’t comprehend how this pedestrian piece of entertainment has managed to earn itself such unadulterated love from so many people.

For those of you wondering what the hell a “newsie” is, the term refers to the young boys who used to sell newspapers back at the turn of the century.  Both the stage and film versions of Newsies are based on a real life newsboy strike that occurred in lower Manhattan during the summer of 1899, when publishing giant Joseph Pulitzer raised the price he was charging the titular newsies for the privilege of selling his papers.  Naturally upset about this, the newsies decided to unionize under the leadership of our hero, Jack Kelly, and went on strike.  In what is likely an embellishment of historical events, the rest of Newsies consists of much singing, dancing, and speechifying about fighting for your rights.
The stage Newsies features a new book by Tony-winning librettist Harvey Fierstein which does an admirable job of keeping the show moving along at a good clip.  While the one liners aren’t as funny as you would like them to be (a problem enhanced by the merely passable comic timing of most of the cast), the characters are reasonably well developed and the plot lacks any glaring holes.  And while realists may gripe about the way everything gets tied up into an unbelievably neat little bow at the end, it should be pointed out that they have come to see a Disney-branded property with all the attendant formulaic trappings.  The heavy handed morals can seem overly simplistic, but moral ambiguity and dark undertones aren’t exactly the hallmark of a family show.
Like the book, the songs by Alan Menken are perfectly fine and perfectly predictable, which most of the shows anthems sounding like extensions of the same basic song (apparently there are only so many ways you can harmonize a bunch of plucky street urchins).  The one notable exception is “Watch What Happens,” a solo for love interest Katherine, a character wisely inserted into the stage version to provide a periodic break from the newsies’ righteous indignation.  A budding journalist, Katherine is attempting to write a front page-worthy article about the newsboy strike, and Menken chronicles her thought process in one of the most inventive pieces of musical theatre character writing to surface in years.  Couple this material with Kara Lindsay’s winning portrayal of Katherine and you get one of the show’s most original and entertaining moments.
The cast is generally solid but features few standout performances.  Andrew Keenan-Bolger is suitably endearing as Crutchie, who as you might have guessed from his name is the adorable little orphan hobbling about the stage on one leg.  Ben Fankhauser brings some welcome level-headedness to the group as Davey, the newsies’ second in command, and John Dossett is just oily enough as Joseph Pulitzer to make an acceptable antagonist, even if he doesn’t achieve the scenery chewing outlandishness that’s the hallmark of the best Disney villains.
The one standout among the cast is leading man Jeremy Jordan, a natural-born talent with all the makings of a true star.  Jordan exudes charisma as the brash Jack Kelly, while displaying enough grit and determination that you legitimately believe he could challenge a business tycoon like Pulitzer.  With his dashing good looks and soaring tenor, generously showcased throughout the show’s runtime, Jordan elevates the show to new heights and is certain to be a mainstay in Broadway musicals for many years to come.
The other star of the show is Christopher Gattelli’s high-flying choreography, danced with such boundless enthusiasm by the show’s large ensemble that its energy is infectious.  It is a distinctly old-school style of Broadway dancing, fondly recalling the song and dance spectacles of yesteryear while adding more than enough stunts and tricks to appeal to today’s audiences.  The big group numbers are easily the show’s strongest, particularly the rousing Act II opener “King of New York,” which features all the newsies plus Katherine in an elaborately staged tap routine.  I couldn’t quite tell you what the *point* of said number was, but it sure as hell was entertaining to watch.
In fact, that is a perfect summary of Newsies in general:  pointless but highly entertaining.  Despite its repeated extolling of the virtues of unionization, at its heart Newsies is pure old-fashioned escapist entertainment whose only purpose is to help the audience forget its cares for a couple of hours.  On that front, Newsies succeeds, although don’t be surprised if you can’t quite remember what was so good about it once you leave the theatre

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