Ready to be the “King of New York?” Well, for the cast of the Tony-winning musical, Newsies, they have been ruling Broadway for good reason. For anyone visiting the Big Apple, Disney Theatrical Productions’ latest offering represents theater at its best, when you forget you’re watching a performance. You feel like you’re part of the show.
The year, 1899. The place, the center of the industrial world: New York City. The newsboys have been suffering long from low wages. Child labor is as predominant as ever before, with freedom from this tireless toil far from reality. Our protagonist, the slick-talking, lady-killer newspaper delivery boy Jack Kelly, played by the charismatic and cool Jeremy Jordan, longs to escape this harsh society for the “little town out west,” Santa Fe. After the illustrious and infamous publisher Joseph Pulitzer raises the prices of papers for the newsboys, Kelly leads his gang of hard-working newsies to rebel. Strike!
Based on the low-grossing cult favorite musical, with tunes by Disney superstar Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman, Newsies takes some creative licenses for the context of the show. Here we have a leading lady in the form of Katharine, an independent aspiring reporter who takes interest in the newsboys’ efforts. Kara Lindsay injects spice and humor into this traditional love interest for the leading guy. Her anthem, the original song, “Watch What Happens,” possesses playful lyrics, showing the development of the strike and her early infatuation with Jack. “Give those kids and me the brand new century,” she proclaims. This scene, along with many in the production, was memorable for incorporating neat projections that complement the content of the specific portion of the show. Literally we see her story come to life from a typewriter to a massive screen resembling a paper.
The set pieces are as dynamic as the performers who dance their way up and down the fictional streets of the city. Nine cube-like pods of metal staircases and platforms, with three rows of three each, line the Nederlander Theatre’s stage. They constantly shift around in different arrangements. Praise the meticulous touches that mark each moment, from the subtle projections “sprayed” onto the chalkboards, to the inclusion of real-life personalities who provide additional depth.
What would an elaborate Broadway show-stopper be without amazing choreography? Tap-dancing dazzles with effortless enthusiasm from the brilliant cast. These are some of the best dancers you’ll find, always in sync and performing difficult routines. One even requires the ensemble to shuffle on pieces of newspaper. Impressive.
These cast of characters “carry the banner” of the beloved musical with pride, which definitely resonates to the audience. Pulitzer, performed by John Dossett, fails to be beset by the villainous stereotype typical in many shows. He offers just enough tongue-in-cheek humor to fit the mood. Davey, played by Ben Fankhauser, demonstrates the natural evolution from aloof outsider to leading man. Yet the character does not seem as multifaceted as it could potentially be. Blame it on the amount of characters in the production, but Davey just doesn’t have enough backstory to make him as interesting. The Katharine role also suffers from the same problem slightly, but a perfect, surprising twist revealed in the second act helps turn her into a more compelling character. Crutchie (Andrew Keenan-Bolger), the disabled but strong sidekick, is the one we viewers root for throughout, and spunky little boy Les (Lewis Grosso and Matthew Schechter) brings some of the most hilarious lines out, to heavy laughs.
Menken’s music makes Newsies more than a play we can all cheer for, but also one we feel an investment in seeing develop. “Carrying the Banner” pushes the play with a high-energy pumping that’s hard to resist. “The Bottom Line” narrates Pulitzer’s plans with a nice amount of playfulness, if not originality. “That’s Rich” does little to advance the show, which is disappointing, but Capathia Jenkins’ powerful jazzy vocals masks the unimportance of this piece. “The World Will Know” is a crowd-pleaser expressing the characters’ angst. This was one of my favorite catchy tunes, along with the “I want” feeling that characterizes the beautifully-simple “Santa Fe.” Jordan fantastically blends Jack’s desperation with ceaseless hope. “King of New York” showcases the classy instrumentals well. Few anthems could compete with the moving “Seize the Day,” with some of the most wonderful lyrics. Though almost every song is exciting, a couple of mediocre songs come into the mix with the somewhat-plain love song, “Something to Believe In,” strengthened by Jordan’s and Lindsay’s connection, and the forgettable “Brooklyn’s Here.” Yet a few duds, if you can even call the weakest songs in an excellent musical as “duds,” don’t diminish the overall power. “Once and for All” reaches the climax quite well, similar to the also incredibly well-done “World Will Know.” Needless to say the songs are top-notch, and purchasing the entire soundtrack is worth every cent. Menken’s direction, as well as Feldman’s knack for creating entertaining lyrics, takes Newsies to another level.
There’s an indescribable feeling I experience when I know I am part of something special. Even as a member of the audience, as remote from the production as anyone else catching this for the first time in the Nederlander Theatre, I felt as though I was part of the newsboys’ mission to obtain an ounce of respect. I argue that’s a testament to the effective storytelling and cast. If setting out to Broadway’s 41st Street and 7th Avenue is not in the cards for you any time soon, catch the Newsies YouTube page (DisneyOnBroadway) for clips, and download a copy of the soundtrack on sites like iTunes. For sure, witnessing Newsies on Broadway is worth shouting from the rooftops. Seizing the day never felt so fulfilling.
This is Brett Nachman signing off. Check back next week for another exciting edition of Disney In Depth!