We always said it: Newsies would be done onstage when the people who love it – the people of our exact age demographic and taste – became the people in charge at America’s theater production companies. And alas, here we are, on the comfortable late-twenties/early thirties cusp. Our peeps are running the show. And after years of talk, we suddenly have a staged Newsies at Paper Mill Playhouse.
Newsies is so specifically of our time. Talk to people who are just a few years older or younger about Crutchy, Specs, and Spot Conlon and they will think you’re talking about the puppies in 101 Dalmations. Or maybe they will have seen the film on a Sunday on the Disney Channel, but they will not, for example, know all the words to “Santa Fe.” (Or all the dance steps…)
The film’s director, Kenny Ortega, said years ago that he wanted to do a live version himself. He never did, focusing his energies instead on the despicable High School Musical series. And perhaps that’s a good thing.
Because, to be clear, the Newsies film is not good. Made by Disney in 1992, just after Alan Menken had won four Academy Awards – two a piece – for The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, it was both ambitious and weird, and a famous financial flop. Based on the historical events surrounding an 1899 news boy strike in New York City, it is a period piece that feels contemporary, and a dance musical that contains an awful lot of talking. In the end, it was hard to see who the movie was made for. Oh, and it’s about little kids.
The key to the film – the thing that has left it lodged so solidly in our imaginations over the years – is that some of those kids are deeply endearing. And of course, newsboy leader Jack Kelly has kept little girls awake nights for the better part of two decades, and for good reason. When it came to casting him – a singing, dancing, all-American newsboy – the film’s creators of course chose an English former child actor who could neither sing nor dance. Christian Bale’s performance in Newsies is not a feat of skill or talent but of sheer charisma and swagger. Watching him on screen, you see how he could pull off almost anything – a serial killer, a crackhead, Batman. Bale famously hates the film, and has had nothing good to say about it over the years. The film’s fans, however, solidly disagree.
They disagreed so loudly that they begged for it to be redone onstage. And so, nineteen years later, it was. Enter the Paper Mill Playhouse version, which opened last night in Millburn, New Jersey. And it’s really, really good.
It’s not fake-good in the way that the film is – that is to say, a total disaster, but charming mostly for its ernest performances and Menken’s wonderful songs. It’s actually good, and we have Harvey Fierstein to thank for that. He’s restructured the film significantly for the stage: Jack is now an artist. There’s a satisfying love story. The ending feels more complete and satisfying. Nearly every lyric in the show has been revised for sense and specificity.
The changes, in some places, are particularly bold. Gone is Brian Denton, the newspaper man in the film played by Bill Pullman. Now, he’s been replaced by Katherine, a chirpy young society reporter who takes up the Newsies’ cause. She is, of course, flirty with Jack – hence the new love story – but she also gets a surprising, and surprisingly credible, backstory of her own.
And then, of course, there are the songs. They have always been the single most appealing thing about Newsies, and they do not disappoint here. On the night we attended, the crowd broke into applause, mid-song, during the first chorus of “Carrying the Banner.” And “Santa Fe”, Jack’s yearning power ballad about escaping the big, dirty city, is a bona fide showstopper. Even Menken’s new songs for the piece – including a replacement of the decidedly lackluster “Lovey Dovey Baby” from the film – are smart and hardworking, and help move the story along.
The dancing, too, has been held over from the film, and to wonderful, high-flying effect. While choreographer Christopher Gatelli doesn’t really break any new ground, he doesn’t need to. The news boys’ athletic, big-spinning moves give the show a breathless energy.
Jeremy Jordan and Kara Lindsay as Jack and Katherine make a cute couple. They’re also both fully in command of their characters. Jordan in particular walks the tough/sensitive line nicely, and hits some beautiful notes along the way. Andrew Keenan-Bolger deserves a shout-out, too, for his heart-meltingly sweet portrayal of Crutchy – another character that feels more substantial thanks to Fierstein’s rewriting.
To be clear, Newsies is not August Wilson. It is still fundamentally entertainment for kids. But parents would do much better to bring their little girls and boys to this show than to callow, interminable Wicked, or mind-numbing Spider-Man. They certainly might enjoy the show themselves a lot more than either of those snoozers. There are even some astute lessons about power, protest and justice thrown in there. Kids may not fully grasp them, but parents won’t be mad about it. Especially because those parents were 12-years-old in 1992 – and have waited a long, long time to see Newsies, live on stage.
Photo: T Charles Erickson