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Theatre in Review: Newsies (Paper Mill Playhouse)

Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson

If you're feeling a little low energy, drop in on Paper Mill Playhouse, where Newsies, the running, jumping, and brawling new musical is currently threatening to leap right off the stage. Disney Theatricals, having noticed that the flop 1992 film, about a turn-of-the-last century strike by New York newsboys against the media baron Joseph Pulitzer, is a long-running cult success, has brought it to the stage with the intention of rolling it out as a property for regional and community productions. They might want to rethink that; given a production that has more snap and vigor than many current Broadway musicals, the eminently crowd-pleasing Newsies offers far more commercial promise than anything Disney has produced in years.

In the hands of librettist Harvey Fierstein, Newsies is a classically structured book musical aimed at young audiences - which, thankfully, doesn't bore or insult their elders. An early number, "Carrying the Banner," practically pulsates with adolescent energy, but it also makes clear that the title characters are mostly orphans, struggling for survival in a Darwinian society that relies on child labor. The action is triggered when Pulitzer, played with mustache-twirling glee by John Dossett, decides to squeeze extra profits out of his New York World by upping the price of the papers the newsboys purchase to sell on the street. It's too much for the boys -- who already struggle to get by -- to bear, and Jack Kelly, their unofficial leader, rounds them up into an ad hoc union, leading to rallies, riots, abductions, and betrayals before Jack and his companions turn the tables on their tycoon nemesis, and an eleventh-hour ride to the rescue by none other than Teddy Roosevelt wraps it all up in a populist bow.

The show is at its best when the newsies are massing on the front lines or when Alan Menken's nervous, propulsive score and Jack Feldman's exuberant lyrics are propelling them around the stage, and up and down on Tobin Ost's spectacular triplex set. (Christopher Gattelli's choreography combines furious stomps, high kicks, tap combinations, and ballet leaps into a single vocabulary expressive of untamed high spirits.) In addition to the insanely catchy "Carrying the Banner," there's the thumpingly assertive "The World Will Know," when the boys first decide to strike; "Seize the Day," when they face off against an army of Pulitzer's goons; and "King of New York," in which, having landed in the headlines for a day, they revel in their newfound notoriety. They're joined in this last number by Katherine Plumber, a girl reporter who, tired of filing vaudeville reviews, sees the newsies as her ticket to the front page; her solo, "Watch What Happens," sung as she struggles to compose a headline-grabbing story, is edgy with energy and a sheer delight in upsetting the status quo.

Feinstein's libretto is drawn in the broadest of strokes, and his well-structured narrative is offset by the thin characterizations. The story flattens a bit whenever it shifts to the pro forma romance between Jack and Katherine, who has A Big Secret. The ballads aren't terribly distinctive -- Pulitzer's big solo, "The News is Getting Better," is a lifeless bit of exposition, and Fierstein never really finds an ideal place for "Santa Fe," one of the film's signature anthems. At times, the dialogue stoops to such tired (and anachronistic) clich├ęs as "a place at the table" and "deal with it," lines that betray the property's teen-movie origins. If you're looking for a really trenchant study of American life in this period, wait for the next revival of Ragtime.

But as a pop entertainment that celebrates the world-changing propensities of young people, Newsies provides a rowdy, uncomplicated good time. Jeff Calhoun's staging keeps things moving at a tornado pace, and the young cast seizes their opportunities with gusto. With his wise-guy veneer, Bowery Boys accent, and a hint of sensitivity -- all wedded to an enormous voice, Jeremy Jordan makes a big impression as Jack. Kara Lindsay enlivens the role Katherine -- a standard spunky Disney heroine -- with real humor and an infectious sense of mischief. Ben Fankhauser is appealing as Jack's lieutenant, as is Andrew Keenan-Bolger as the inevitable gimpy-legged newsboy who gets spirited off to the home for wayward boys, only to make a triumphant return. As Pulitzer, Dossett puffs his chest and looks put out most of the time; his performance comes to life late in the show, when he and Jack try to out bargain each other, his eyes glinting with satisfaction as Jack proves to be a worthy antagonist.

Obst's set consists of three erector-set towers that move all over the stage; they are fronted by screens for Sven Ortel's evocative projections, which offer an endless variety of period New York views. Jeff Croiter's lighting works the stage from every available angle, pacing the numbers until they reach the maximum level of excitement. Jess Goldstein's costumes include the newsies' ragged outfits, the robber barons' three-piece suits, the jaunty angle of a girl reporter's hat, and a showgirl's scandalous tights and feathers. Randy Hansen's sound design, as is usually the case at Paper Mill, is awfully loud, but it does get the lyrics across, even in the many chorus numbers.

Even if it coasts, at times, on sheer vitality, that's not a bad quality to have. Whatever happens next to Newsies -- surely the producers must be thinking about Broadway -- it seems poised to offer first-class family entertainment.--David Barbour

(27 September 2011)

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