By Jack Feldman (lyrics), Alan Menken (music)
Phenomenal choreography almost compensates for show’s flaws
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
Review by Lauren Whalen
In the early 90’s, the film “Newsies” came and went in theaters. To this day I don’t know anyone who saw its initial theatrical release. However, on video (yes, video) the Disney musical – based on a true story of a turn-of-the-century newsboy strike in New York City – took on a life of its own. These days, nearly every musical theater nerd of a certain age knows the film’s soundtrack by heart and has been longing for a stage adaptation. In 2012, this wish was granted on Broadway, boasting a book by Harvey Fierstein and six new songs from original composer Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman. Now on its first national tour, Newsies the stage musical is a bit of a mixed bag, with largely unmemorable new songs and a thoroughly annoying female character, but stellar choreography and performances almost make up for the glaring flaws. Almost.
Every morning, New York’s newsboys greet the day with open arms: though it’s a hard life shilling “papes” from dawn to dusk, they relish their independence and camaraderie. Charismatic Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca) is only too happy to help newcomer brothers Davey (Jacob Kemp) and Les (Vincent Crocilla), who’ve recently left school to support their family. In his private moments, though, Jack draws and paints, and dreams of a cleaner, simpler life in Santa Fe. Things get complicated when media magnate Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard) decides to raise the price of newspapers for the boys who sell them – and Jack heads up a citywide strike. Intrepid reporter Katherine (Stephanie Styles) gives the ragtag group front-page coverage while fighting her feelings for Jack, who questions his position as unofficial leader and struggles to stay true to himself while doing what is right.
The 1992 film starred Christian Bale as Jack, and featured a cast of comely young men who exuded rugged charm while executing flawless song and dance numbers. Certainly, Christopher Gattelli’s choreography carries on the film’s infectious energy – quite simply, the dancing in Newsies is a work of art. Production numbers such as “Seize the Day” and “King of New York” (both carried over from the original movie and extended for the stage) almost don’t need lyrics – they stand alone as mini-narratives, bursting with gorgeous adrenaline and influences of ballet, tap, jazz and modern dance. Beautifully executed by an athletic and enthusiastic male ensemble, Newsies’ choreography blends the best of old and new musical theater.
If only the rest of the musical were that satisfying. With the exception of the short and sweet “Brooklyn’s Here” (illustrating the support of newsies from New York’s toughest borough), Menken and Feldman’s new songs feel superfluous. Two days later, I can’t tell you what any of them sound like. The biggest mistake in the film-to-stage adaptation process, however, was the addition of the principal female character (there is a reporter in the film, but he’s male, played by Bill Pullman). When the stage musical was in development, a big piece of news was the creative team’s intent to add a strong female to the ensemble, as opposed to the somewhat watery love interest in the movie. The result? Though Styles does her best, Katherine is a squeaky twit, preaching women’s equality in one breath while giggling about how attractive Jack is in the next. Why was this necessary? Note to Fierstein et al: “female” does not have to equal “love interest.” Why not a girl newsie, disguised as a boy in the name of making a living? If you’re going to feminize the reporter character, have her intent on doing her job and making it in hard news, not chasing after the head newsie.
That said, the performances are appropriately winning. DeLuca’s Jack is a smart-mouthed heartthrob sure to spark more than a few crushes from audience members, and Blanchard’s Pulitzer is a classic borderline-cartoon villain (this is a Disney production, after all). Kemp is utterly adorable as the upstanding, cautious Davey, and Zachary Sayle elicits more than a few “awww’s” as crippled newsie Crutchie. Of the newsies, standouts include Jeff Heimbrock as Brooklyn leader Spot Conlon and Ben Cook as Race – the latter’s dance and gymnastics skills and unparalleled charisma are equally dazzling.
In a nutshell, Newsies’ choreography alone is worth the price of a ticket. The running time is bloated, the added songs leave a lot to be desired, and the female character is eye roll-worthy, but at its core, Newsies is a fun and enjoyable evening with masterful dancing. As imperfect as the stage adaptation is, you have to admire a story that (like its subjects) went from scrappy underdog to superstar.
Newsies continues through January 4th at Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph (map). Tickets are $40-$130, and are available by phone (800-775-2000) or online through Ticketmaster.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information and performance schedule available at BroadwayInChicago.com. (Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Deen van Meer
Dan DeLuca (Jack Kelly), Steve Blanchard (Joseph Pulitzer), Stephanie Styles (Katherine), Angela Grovey (Medda Larkin), Jacob Kemp (Davey), Zachary Sayle (Crutchy), Vincent Crocilla, Anthony Rosenthal (Les – alternating), Mark Aldritch (Seitz, ensemble), Evan Autio (Scab, ensemble), Bill Bateman (Bunsen), John E. Brady (Wiesel, Mr. Jacobi, Mayor, ensemble), Kevin Carolan (Roosevelt, ensemble), Ben Cook (Race, ensemble), Julian DeGuzman (Finch, ensemble), Sky Flaherty (Albert, Scab, ensemble), Jeff Heimbrock (Elmer, Spot Conlon, ensemble), Meredith Inglseby (Hannah, ensemble), James Judy (Snyder, understudy Pulitzer), Chaz Wolcott (Scab, ensemble), Josh Assor, Melissa Steadman Hart, Eric Jon Mahlum, Stephen Hernandez, Andrew Wilson (Swings), Josh Burrage, Nico DeJesus, DeMarius Copes, Jon Hacker, Ginna Claire Mason, Michael Ryan, Jordan Samuels, Jack Sippel (Ensemble),
James Dodgson (conductor), Faith Seetoo (keyboard, associate conductor), Chip Prince (keyboard, assistant conductor), Paul Baron, Tim Burke (trumpet, flugelhorn), Joe Wallace (bass), Heinrich Kruse (drums), Dan Johnson (trombone), Steve Leinheiser (woodwinds), Andrew McCann (violin), Jocelyn Davis-Beck (cello), Steve Roberts (guitars, banjo), Joe Sonnefeldt (percussion)
behind the scenes
Jeff Calhoun (director), Christopher Gattelli (choreographer), Tobin Ost (scenic design), Jess Goldstein (costume design), Jeff Croiter (lighting design), Ken Travis (sound design), Sven Ortel (original Broadway projection design), Daniel Brodie (projection adaptation), Charles G. LaPointe (hair and wig design), J. Allan Suddeth (fight direction), Telsey + Company – Justin Huff, CSA (casting), Andrew Wilson (dance captain), Josh Assor (asst. dance captain), Kevin Carolan (fight captain), Anne Quart (associate producer), Geoffrey Quart (technical supervisor), Eduardo Castro (general manager), Jeff Norman (production stage manager), Michael T. Clarkston (stage manager), Patricia L. Grabb (asst. stage manager), Mark Hummel (dance music arrangements), John Miller (music coordinator), James Dodgson (music director), Richard J. Hinds (associate director), Lou Castro (associate choreographer), Danny Troob (orchestrations), Michael Kosarin (music supervisor, music arranger), Deen van Meer (photos)