EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT! DISNEY'S NEWSIES IS A HIT!
OK, that headline is hardly new news, since this exuberantly retro show, now on a national tour, has been a continual sellout since its 2011 debut at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse. Retooled from the Disney live-action movie musical flop (1992) starring Christian Bale, Robert Duvall, Bill Pullman, and Ann-Margret (which has since transformed into a cult DVD classic of sorts), the transference to the stage has been nothing less than re-animating.
The show pulses with life; it's ripe for theater. It's big and grand, told in musical boldface that screams half-page headlines. SCRUFFY TEEN ORPHANS GO WILD!! BOWERY BOYS STRIKE!! DEAD END KIDS TAKE DOWN MIGHTY PULITZER!! ANNIE AND OLIVER HAVE SON OF LES MIZ!!!
Based on a true tale from 1899 New York, the “Newsies,” the lower class orphans and homeless who peddle the city's dailies like street hawkers, go on strike when Joseph Pulitzer, famed publisher of The World, raises the price on their bulk rate. In the days before kiosks and newspaper stands, the Newsies bought a stack of “papes” and then were at liberty to sell at a profit. With a price increase, they had to sell more papers just to keep even. It was unscrupulous of magnate Pulitzer to punish his impoverished sellers with such a tactic, but the bottom line was just as important back then as it is now. So when the working poor formed an impromptu union and refused to sell his papers, Pulitzer sent out the goon squad to force them to capitulate. While all this is true, the rest of the buoyant musical is pure yellow journalism, albeit of the best beguiling Broadway kind.
History takes an obvious backseat to the old-fashioned tropes of showbiz. Refashioning the screenplay, Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage aux Folles, Kinky Boots) inks the musical's book in appropriate black and white. There are no grays, or much color rotogravure. The Newsies are brazen, crackin' wise and cool; the feisty ingenue (Stephanie Styles) falls for the lower class lug; ruffian Jack (on opening night it was Michael Ryan filling in for Dan DeLuca) has a sensitive soul (he paints like an angel); the villains are thoroughly villainous; and although some references to the “changing times” are dropped like bricks, nothing much is made out of the tumultuous period. Nascent unions, good; newspaper tycoons, bad. Sure, the good guys get roughed up by the heavies right at the first act curtain, but the story's such a comfy retread everything's in its rightful place. It's serenely efficient and without surprise.
But what this musical glorifies, revels in, and exudes in abundance is sheer physicality. This show moves! Director Jeff Calhoun (a perpetual Tony-nominee) doesn't waste a beat; there's not an ounce of fat anywhere. It's all sharp and clear and concise.
Watch that mechanical marvel of a set by Tobin Ost. It's a three-story, triple tower of erector set scaffolding that glides forward and back, pivots apart, interlocks, then spins anew, with screens in each separate grid that flow up and down, upon which are projected windows, cityscapes, or even a quick educational video on how an antique printing press works. Whatever's needed for the scene, it's there to see. Actors scramble up and down, gliding from one tower to another in a perpetual mobile. It's quite a spectacle.
But even this Eiffel contraption pales when the Newsies take flight. And fly they do in Christopher Gattelli's Tony-winning choreography. It's teen boy spirit on overdrive, showoffy and gymnastic. The male chorus line, none of whom I assume are in their teens anymore, gets quite a workout. Back flips, pirouettes, double turns, handsprings, stomping tap, and a fantastic bounding leap that seems caught in mid-air are just a few of the sensational moves. In the script, the guys aren't individualized apart from the supporting characters of crippled Crutchie (sweet-voiced Zachery Sayle as an older Tiny Tim type), newbie intellect Davey (rich-voiced Jacob Kemp) with his smart-ass kid brother Les (scene-stealing Vincent Crocilla, spelled by Anthony Rosenthal on alternate performances), but when joined by Race, Albert, Specs, Henry, Finch, Elmer, Romeo, and Mush – sinewy, muscled, lanky, or squat – the guys are an entire Olympics team. And they sing as forcefully as they dance. These Bowery Boys are in a class by themselves, a terrific ensemble. When they strut their stuff in Alan Menken/Jack Feldman's rousing anthems “Seize the Day,” “King of New York,” or “The World Will Know,” crisscrossing the stage in their ultra-high octane routines, you want to grab your union card, march on stage, and join the crusade.
The cast is very good all down the line, playing their stereotypes with verve, but Tuesday night it was Ryan’s show without question. As natural leader Jack Kelly, he holds center stage with a pro's easy effervescence. Lithe and commanding, he's got Jimmy Cagney's grace as a tough with a golden heart. And he has pipes to spare. What a distinct, lilting Irish tenor. He captures our ear immediately in his opening ballad, the exquisitely plaintive “Santa Fe,” his aching plea to leave the squalor of the tenements for his Eden in the west. Dreamer and doer. If anyone can stand up to the bully Pulitzer, it's this hardscrabble rebel with a cause and stage presence to burn. If his performance doesn't propel Mr. Ryan to the front ranks, what are producers watching?
Styles is most appealing as a Nellie Bly-like reporter who champions the downtrodden kids in her newspaper exposé. Her burgeoning feminist views keep the macho guys on guard, a nice touch. And she gets the score's best song, “Watch What Happens,” a sneaky patter song wherein she seesaws between knowing what to say but not how to say it. It's an ode to writer's block, all mixed up with her awakened feelings for Jack and wanting to change the world, and maybe get a promotion at the same time. The comic song lifts the musical to unexpected heights, revealing character as no dialogue scene could, like Sondheim in a particularly sunny mood.
Except for the Sophie Tucker-esque parody, “That's Rich,” belted by honey-voiced Angela Grovey, whose character disappears after her one number, Menken's music uses no pastiche sound of the Gilded Age: no rag, waltzes, or even Victor Herbert, yet it works marvelously in its generic Broadway/Disney style. The anthems stir, the love ballads soar, and wistful “Santa Fe” stands apart, like smoke in the air. It's not surprising that the score and lyrics won a Tony Award.
Newsies breaks no new ground; it won't be copied or generate a sequel. But if you want a kinetic experience in the theater, a thumping, fire-cracking good time, you can't do any better. You will leave the theater feeling lighter than when you entered. And isn't that the reason musicals were invented?
Newsies. Through May 24. Broadway at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at thehobbycenter.org or call 800-982-2787. $30-$145.