The new Disney Broadway musical, Newsies, adapted from the 1992 movie of the same name, has opened to strong reviews and looks like it will be a big hit. The show arrived on Broadway after a successful fall run, which included rave reviews, at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. The reviews for the Broadway production had not come out when I saw the show a few days before opening night, but, based on the enthusiastic reaction to the Paper Mill production, I entered the Nederlander Theatre with high hopes for Newsies. Unfortunately, I left feeling disappointed.
Newsies tells a fictionalized story, but it is based on real events: the 1899 strike by New York newsboys against publishers like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. The 1992 movie, which starred Christian Bale, was a flop, grossing less than $3 million. But, it has developed a cult following. Disney originally planned to make the stage musical available for licensing in regional productions after the Paper Mill mounting; but, because the response was so strong, they decided to bring it to Broadway for what was initially announced as a limited engagement. That has already been extended, and it now looks like Newsies will be around for a long time. It will prove a gold mine for family audiences, especially those with teenage boys.
The story has all the elements that should make for a thoroughly winning musical. Its portrayal of teenage boys following a strong young leader, with its pro union sentiment, taking on rich and powerful interests, has real relevance today, given news headlines about Occupy Wall Street and the “1%.” The audience the night I was there was wildly enthusiastic; yet, I found myself wondering why I was not responding to the proceedings with nearly the same level of glee. Through too much of the evening, I felt distanced and not totally involved.
The problem stems from the usually reliable Harvey Fierstein’s book. It just fails to tell this story in a compelling, thoroughly engaging manner, giving us instead some basically one dimensional characters and little emotion or drama. The score, with music by the estimable Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman, includes songs from the movie, along with new songs written for the stage version. While serviceable, with a few good melodies, it also falls short in consistently elevating the evening. So, Newsies comes off as an intermittently entertaining musical which too often fails to ignite, thus not living up to my high expectations. The sense of exhilaration and excitement that should come at a great musical is missing.
That said, Newsies does have some strong moments. Two big productions numbers, “Seize the Day” and “King of New York,” which features some nifty tap dancing, work well. But, every time Newsies starts to catch fire, things fizzle all too quickly. Jeff Calhoun has staged the production with energy and a sense of constant motion. Everything looks good, and the revolving, erector-set like scenery, works fine. Christopher Gattelli’s athletic, acrobatic choreography provides most of the highlights, but there is a sameness to many of the production numbers, and even some of them ultimately come up a bit flat. It is as if the creators are relying on the energy, the movement, and the multiple big dance numbers to compensate for script and score issues, but it did not suffice. Only in the show’s closing scenes did Newsies finally engage and have an emotional impact that was missing through most of the evening. It was too little too late.
As Jack Kelly, the teenaged leader of the newsboys strike, Jeremy Jordan is charismatic and has genuine star power. However, his Jack, through no fault of Jordan’s, is not nearly a fully developed character with a totally satisfying arc. Nevertheless, Jordan, who received praise earlier this season starring as Clyde in the unsuccessful musical Bonnie and Clyde, has a great presence, confidence and is a rising musical theater star who commands the stage with both his singing and acting. The supporting cast is talented and hard working, but none of them have fleshed out characters to play. Kara Lindsay is charming as a reporter who becomes Jordan’s love interest; I liked Ben Fankhauser, who plays Jack’s brainy right hand man, along with Matthew J. Schecter, who had some funny moments as Fankhauser’s younger brother.
Too often throughout the evening, I found myself wondering what the rest of the audience was going crazy about. I certainly did not dislike Newsies – it is modestly entertaining and there are the occasional sparks of joy. Clearly, the vast majority of viewers and critics responded with a lot more enthusiasm than I did. But, for me, Newsies was a missed opportunity and a letdown.