|By MATT WINDMAN
Let’s just get right out and say it: Newsies is the best show that Disney has produced since The Lion King. And for those who think The Lion King is highly overrated – including me – Newsies is the best thing the company has ever done on Broadway.
When Newsies premiered at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse back in September, Disney purposely kept expectations as low as possible. After all, its last two Broadway musicals, The Little Mermaid and Tarzan, were flat-out disasters.
But once word spread that the show, based on the cult 1992 film musical, was a genuinely entertaining crowd-pleaser packed with young performers (not unlike Annie, Billy Elliot or Oliver!) it was only a matter of time until a Broadway transfer was announced.
Unlike the recent Broadway musical Xanadu, which was also based on a flop film musical but tried to simply parody it, Newsies actually succeeds in breathing new life into the film’s characters and fixing its problematic plot.
Inspired by a true story, Newsies chronicles a group of poor teenage boys selling newspapers on the streets of New York in the late 19th century. When publishing tycoon Joseph Pulitzer (John Dossett) raises the paper’s distribution cost, the boys, led by the captivating 17-year-old Jack Kelly (Jeremy Jordan, in the role played in the film by Christian Bale), declare themselves a union and go on strike.
The sentimental David-versus-Goliath story is especially relevant given the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, and the audience can’t help but cheer the boys on in their struggle. I’ve been hearing reports of mid-show standing ovations popping up at numerous performances.
As book-writer, Harvey Fierstein has added more humor and the new character Katherine (Kara Lindsay), an assertive reporter to serve as a love interest for Kelly. Fierstein has also restructured the musical so that it opens with “Santa Fe,” where Jack reveals his desire to leave the city behind. Jack also now has a hidden talent as an artist.
The memorable and melodic film score included the anthems “Seize the Day” and “The World Will Know,” the yearning ballad “Santa Fe,” and upbeat production numbers “Carrying the Banner” and “King of New York.”
Original composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman have penned several new numbers for the stage version in order to flesh out the plot. Although the new ones are admittedly less catchy, they at least manage to flesh out the plot and add character detail. “Watch What Happens,” in particular, is an excellent soliloquy for Katharine while she attempts to write an article about the newsboys.
Jeff Calhoun’s excellent production benefits from a three-story set design of interlocking scaffolds, which is complicated by cinematic projections and Christopher Gattelli’s spectacular and inventive choreography. The incredible young males in the cast do back-flips and audacious balletic spins, tap-dance on bar tables, and shuffle with sheets of newspaper under their feet.
Jordan, who starred in the flop Bonnie and Clyde earlier this season, proves himself yet again to be a genuine matinee idol as Kelly. His theatrical performance bursts with an aggressive fighting spirit and sincere adolescent emotion.
He is nicely complimented by a strong ensemble including Andrew Keenan-Bolger as his cuddly pal Crutchy and Capathia Jenkins as the showgirl Medda. Dossett, to his credit, tries his best to humanize Pulitzer and make him into less of a villain.