Friday, April 20, 2012

REVIEW: Disney's Newsies

Review of the Sunday, April 15 evening performance at the Nederlander Theatre in New York City.  Starring Jeremy Jordan, John Dossett, Kara Lindsay, Capathia Jenkins, Ben Frankhauser, Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Matthew Schechter.  Based on the Disney film written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White.  Book by Harvey Fierstein.  Music by Alan Menken.  Lyrics by Jack Feldman.   Choreography by Christopher Gattelli.  Direction by Jeff Calhoun.  2 hours, 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Grade: A+

Have you heard the news?  Disney is back on Broadway with a new stage musical based on one of its films!  This time around, though, things are different.  The film it is based on was a flop of the first order. There's not a a Disney Princess in sight, and the cast is nearly all male.  There isn't a single jaw-dropping special effect. And get this - you learn a little something about American history since it is based on actual events with real-life people.  Not exactly the kind of show that sounds like a song-and-dance fest, let alone one that could be a hit on the order of The Lion King.  And yet...

The truth is that Disney's Newsies is the big hit musical we've been waiting for all season!  Gone is any sense that this was based on a flop film, so vibrant, smart and fresh Harvey Fierstein's book is.  And while there is no princess in sight, there is a very smart, brave and sassy young woman (Kara Lindsay) ready to take on the world and the star of the show, Broadway "it" boy, Jeremy Jordan, who proves with this bombastic performance, that he is the real thing.

Nobody flies in this show, but all 20 or so of the best male dancers on Broadway soar, literally and figuratively in production number after production number.  Christopher Gattelli's athletic trios, quartets and quintets of dancers hitch-kick, heel-click and do Russian splits into tumbles, rolls and somersaults with a precision and gravity-defying aplomb that will make you gasp and cheer with delight, once you pick your jaw up off the floor.  Who needs flying when you've got Newsies?  And trust me on this one, years from now, after thousands of performances the world over, these signature moves will be as closely associated with this show as the snaps, angry crouches and jubilant L-kicks are with West Side Story.

Lest you think the dancing is the star of the show, consider Tobin Ost's towering set, itself made up of three towers that rotate and reconfigure with the same ease and grace as the dancers dancing in, on and around them.  A tic-tac-toe board of playing spaces, each section also comes equipped with screens that rise to reveal characters and locations and lower to provide space for Sven Ortel's sepia-washed images and urgent headline projections. These set pieces are each a tribute to the American Industrial Age, with mood and subtext provided by the dramatic, yet subtle lighting of Jeff Croiter.  Jess Goldstein's costumes evoke a bygone era of this country when the citizens were both at the top of their game and at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Which brings me back to Harvey Fierstein's fast-paced and practically fat-free book - timely as even he probably didn't intend in this age of the 1% and Occupy Movement.  The guy knows how to write a musical book, to be sure, with a story whose ending you can figure out before it starts, but contains enough plot twists, humor and emotional heft to make it interesting for the entire time you are in the theatre.  Sincere, but not mind-numbing, enthusiastic, but not phony, the story of down-trodden youth fighting for what's right against the giant machine of big business is made all the more interesting by delving into several characters that surround our hero, Jack Kelly.  There is his best friend, Crutchie, who has to fight all the harder to compensate for his crippled leg.  Then there are Davey and Les, two kids new to the newsies lifestyle, forced to sell papers in order to support their family.  Theatre owner Medda Larkin provides some glamour and an important plot point or two.   And there is Katherine, brash and beautiful, whose smarts are rivaled only by her enormous heart, which she will soon, inevitably, give to Jack.  The bad guys are just as plentiful - the Delancy Brothers and Wiesel, who lord over the papers and make life hell for the Newsies; the evil orphan disciplinarian Snyder; and the media mogul Joseph Pulitzer.  Credit must be given to these actors, Mr. Fierstein and director Jeff Calhoun, for making sure that each character (including each of the members of the enormous ensemble) is fully developed, well-rounded, and only when necessary, a "type."

The score, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman, manages to sound both of the turn of the 20th century and of the turn of the 21st.  The beautifully dreamy ballad, "Santa Fe" bookends act one and gives main character Jack Kelly much depth and an immediate connection with the audience, just as the lovely duet "Something to Believe In" solidifies the relationship - both thematically and romantically - between Jack and Katherine.  The "bad guy" number, "The Bottom Line" sets up the conflict neatly while also addressing the realities of pre-union business; it also give Dossett a chance to really sink his teeth into an extended, character-driven scene.  The ladies aren't ignored, either, with Medda's charming and funny "That's Rich" vaudeville number, and Katherine's belty "Watch What Happens."  The big numbers which open each act, first "Carrying the Banner" and second, "King of New York" provide show-stopping dances (Gattelli sure knows how to build a tap number!) AND a chance to get to know and understand the mindset of the boys.  Other numbers of note include "The World Will Know" and "Seize the Day."

Similarly, the performances are uniformly outstanding.  All of the Newsies are amazing, truly, but there are a few standouts, including: dancer/spinner extraordinaire Ryan Steele, cigar chomping funny guy Ryan Breslin, tap specialist (and logo poster boy) Kyle Coffman, and Brooklyn Newsies leader TommyBracco.  Kevin Carolan provides a charming and smart turn as Teddy Roosevelt.

John Dossett does a remarkable job creating a nasty and (thankfully) multi-dimensional villain, no small feat, considering he has one song and a grand total of three scenes in which to establish his character, provide an understandable conflict, and evolve from evil to reformed bad guy.  Capathia Jenkins exudes a gentle charm with a steely resolve underneath as theatre owner and friend to Jack and the boys.  She also provides an interesting plot twist at the end; one wishes she had a bit more to do.

The two new boys are played well by young Matthew Schechter (he alternates in the role with Lewis Grosso) and Ben Frankhauser.  Schechter gets all of the "cute moments" and audience-grabbing groan/laugh jokes.  But Frankhauser does really excellent work, carefully allowing us to watch as he grows from defensive smart kid to believer in Jack and the impending strike to one of the guys.  Andrew Keenan-Bolger does a lot with his limited role, managing to make his character's affliction subordinate to a strong-willed, loyal friend.  He also executes some specialized fight movements (staged by J. Allen Suddeth) that make you wonder if Crutchie will live to sell another paper, so well does he "take a beating."  While it fits the plot, one wishes Mr. Keenan-Bolger had more to do in the second act.

Kara Lindsay has the unenviable task of creating the show's lone new character, Katherine, a welcome addition to the story.  She does quite a nice job, a heady mix of typical Disney heroine and genuine character.  Her big solo, "Watch What Happens," written for the stage production, gets a huge hand - her voice is clear and powerful.  And she more than holds her own during the big tap number, "King of New York," which has her in a dance-off with the Newsies.  Her giant eyes and genuine smile endear her to the audience instantly.  More importantly, she is strong enough for her most important job - ingenue to a strong, popular matinee idol.  Smart as she is pretty, Ms. Lindsay provides an appropriate and worthy adversary/confidante for Jeremy Jordan, leading man of the year.

As if his time as Tony in West Side Story and as titular male lead in Bonnie and Clyde weren't proof enough, Mr. Jordan's star turn in Newsies should solidify his stature as Broadway's current lead of choice.  And as wonderful as he was in those other shows, he really commands the stage here.  He manages to bring a boyish charm to his character while recognizing he is the senior paper boy, and reveals subtlety, as the show progresses, a painful past that informs most of his character's decisions and reactions.  Such complexity of character is especially rare in such family-friendly musicals, yet it works particularly well here.  When Jack comes up against the formidable Pulitzer, Jordan holds nothing back, matching Dossett line for line.  His strong acting carries over into his numbers, particularly the reprise of "Santa Fe," which concludes the first act.  The power of his vocals and the emotion delivered is nothing short of amazing, sending us off to intermission on a dramatic high, longing for a quick return to the action.

This remarkable production is flawlessly put together by director Jeff Calhoun, who has assembled a show that is abundantly theatrical in presentation, but with the smooth flow of a feature film.  Happily, this version of Newsies bares little resemblance to the film upon which it is based, and Calhoun is clearly celebrating all the things that live theatre can do that film can not.  As large as the physical production is, one never loses track of where the focus should be, even as that focus shifts all over the place during one of the many production numbers and large group scenes.   Perhaps it is because he is a protege of the great Tommy Tune, Calhoun seems to have same gift for creating - with his collaborators - a seamless production.   The detail in his direction - each Newsie has a well-rounded character, the build up to the big reveal about Katherine, the entire story line of Ms. Medda - adds so much depth to the story, adult theatre lovers should leave as sated and delighted as the tween and teens who threaten to take over the Nederlander Theatre.

So far, the show remains a limited engagement, extended only through August 19.  A wise decision on the part of Disney, to hedge its bets against another failure like The Little Mermaid, its seems the gamble has paid off.  Newsies is a bonafide, SRO hit, and not just because the film is a cult favorite.  It is big because it is good.  Very good.  Come Tony time (or maybe even after the nominations are announced) I have a feeling  that the "limited" will come off the "engagement."  It should.  Newsies deserves a good, long run.

(Photos by Deen van Meer)

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