Monday, April 15, 2013

Extra! Extra! Read All about It: The "Newsies" Review

This weekend, I was privileged to attend a performance of the musical “Newsies” at the Nederlander Theater in New York City. I first saw the movie “Newsies” many years ago, starring a very young Christian Bale and featuring Bill Pullman and Max Casella (of “Doogie Howser” fame). Disney revised the musical for the stage, adding some songs and changing around a few characters, and the show opened on Broadway in 2012, receiving 8 Tony Award nominations (including best musical, best book of a musical, best director of a musical, and best scenic design) and winning the Tony for both choreography and original score. The plot is based on a real-life newsboys’ strike in New York City in 1899, and tells the story of a group of “newsies,” young boys who buy newspapers at a penny for ten “papes” to sell on the streets. When the owner of “The World” newspaper, magnate Joseph Pulitzer, decides to up the price by half a penny in order to increase the paper’s circulation (and his own profits), the boys band together and strike, recruiting the help of a girl reporter, eventually bringing the entire city of New York – and Pulitzer himself – to its knees.

What makes this musical unique is that the ensemble – and the vast majority of the cast – is comprised of young men between the ages of about 15 and 25. This gives the show a style and energy unlike any other. The most similar show I can think of is “West Side Story,” with its athletic, all-male dance numbers like “When You’re a Jet” and “Cool”. But where WSS intersperses those dance numbers with all-women’s numbers like “America” and mixed-gender dances like “Mambo,” “Newsies” is all boy. (Okay, there’s one number where one girl joins in, but it only serves to highlight the boys.) And let’s be honest: boys do not dance like girls. Nor do they dance like older men. And in fact, “dance” is hardly a complete description of the choreography in this show. There are cartwheels, handsprings, flips, walking on hands, and full tumbling passes running the length of the stage. There’s a tap number and a prop-driven number dancing on torn newspaper pages a la Gene Kelly. Choreographer Christopher Gatelli makes use of the boys’ flexibility, strength, balance, athleticism, and most noticeably their stamina and endurance to create a hugely energetic, vibrant, electric dance ensemble. The energy level maintained throughout each number, and indeed throughout the entire show, is frankly mind-boggling. And his choreography is not only exciting and interesting, but it serves to build on the characters created in the show, giving each newsie his own personality.

The characters of the boys are crucial to the production. If the audience doesn’t care about the newsies, they don’t care about the outcome of the strike, and the dramatic tension is lost. But director Jeff Calhoun gives us plenty to care about by not only giving the main character, Jack Kelly, both the dream of getting out of the city someday and a seemingly unattainable love interest, but by creating many unique and individual characters within the ensemble. A few of the boys have lines that give them a backstory or a personality – cigar-chomping Race, bookish Davey, crippled Crutchie, wise-cracking Sniper, young and innocent Les. But even the nameless boys are not left faceless – there’s the one who finishes every leap and every tumbling pass with a cocky grin, the shy one who wrings his hat in his hands after a particularly impressive leap as if apologizing for grabbing everyone’s attention, the gymnast who walks on his hands and scampers up the set pieces like an agile monkey.

And speaking of the set – oh, what a set it is! I’ve seen some amazing pieces of stagecraft and scenic design in my years of watching professional theater, but this set was one of the most memorable. There are many stage musicals that are later adapted as movies which take a small, limited stage set and expand it into a huge scale. “The Sound of Music” is a perfect example: the stage gave us a grand ballroom, a room or two at the convent, and a gazebo; the movie gave us a birds’ eye view of the Alps and seemingly the entire town of Nonnburg. “Newsies” must somehow do this in reverse, taking the whole city of New York and fitting it onto the stage. Scenic designers Tobin Ost and Sven Ortel do this brilliantly with a trio of three-level modular scaffolding and stair units that move forward and back, spin, and connect and disconnect to create various backdrops. The front of each segment also has a drop-down screen that is used as both a projection screen and a scrim.

These units, along with similar smaller pieces, all painted in drab, dirty-city gray, become everything from the gates of Pulitzer’s offices to the stairway down into a makeshift prison cell to the balconies and fire escapes of tenement buildings to a platform for an announcement by Governor Roosevelt. These multi-use pieces allow for seamless transitions between scenes, using the actors (and possibly a few stagehands costumed as newsies) to move the sets while the action of a scene is still going on, with no need for a blackout or a break in the action of the story. The added advantage of the multi-level set is that it fills the stage with action from top to bottom and not just from side to side, creating a sense of being surrounded by city hustle and bustle, much like a three-ring circus that gives the audience too much to look at all at once.

But of course, choreography and sets can do nothing without a talented cast to bring them to life. And there is certainly no lack of talent in this cast. Corey Cott as strike leader Jack and Kara Lindsay as young reporter Katherine are both charming in their roles, with impressively powerful vocals and brilliant comic timing, each throwing off witty asides with aplomb and making wry facial expressions that stop just short of actual mugging. The characters are well-matched in terms of their tough exteriors, hidden insecurities, and sharp wit and intelligence, and both actors hit just the right balance of cockiness and vulnerability to make the audience both admire and sympathize with them.

The character of Katherine is an excellent example of how a show can sometimes be improved by character changes. One of the major changes from the movie to the stage show is that the reporter was originally a man (Bill Pullman), and the love interest was the sister of two of the newsies. Combining these two characters by making the reporter a young woman who falls for Jack makes the youth vs. adult battle lines all the clearer, with the youngsters acting completely without adult support, relying on their own wits and determination alone, making their eventual victory all the sweeter. And the increased social inequality between Jack and Katherine is an even greater deterrent to their romance than in the original, which naturally makes them – and the audience – all the more determined to overcome it.

But if every character were totally sympathetic, the show could easily become saccharine-sweet. Fortunately, the sweetness is cut nicely by a villain that the audience loves to hate, John Dossett’s nasty Joseph Pulitzer, who is money-grubbing, self-centered, egotistical, and vengeful, taking delight in tricking Jack and sending him to prison, and showing absolutely no concern over the plight of the boys who are struggling to feed themselves and their families. The audience can’t help but cheer when he finally gets his comeuppance, courtesy of the cleverness and persistence of the youngsters he had looked down on as insignificant and unimportant.

Over the past few years, I have been somewhat disappointed in the quality of many of the Broadway shows that have been created. But “Newsies,” even though not being entirely new, is proof positive that there is a new generation ready to begin “carrying the banner” for Broadway. Based on this production, I’d say it’s going to be in excellent hands.

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