Newsies’ Disney’s Cheeky Kids
By Isa Goldberg/Chief Theater Critic
Child labor might be a delicate issue for a Broadway musical. It was the cornerstone to “Parade,” a musical that fared poorly when in premiered at Lincoln Center in 1998. But perhaps that production evoked other concerns, too, with its treatment of anti-Semitism in the post civil war South.
On the other hand, orphans in the workhouse described in “Oliver,” have won audience favor for eons. In the new Disney musical, “Newsies,” the Dickensian world is transported to the streets of New York just before the turn of the 20th century. Here, the capitalist behemoths are represented by Joseph Pulitzer (John Dossett), the newspaper tycoon and famously liberal journalist, who contrives to save his failing newspaper by raising the price his newspaper boys pay for the “papes” they deliver. Interesting story for a time when newspapers themselves are fading into the past. But as a metaphor for villainy, newspaper tycoons currently appear in such popular productions as “Spider Man The Musical.” There is something intrinsically comic to the notion of hitting someone (or something) when they’re already down and out.
That “Newsies” shies clear of probing into dangerous waters should be obvious. The evils of corporate corruption, poverty and child abuse are offered here in the context of family entertainment. Rather than disturbing, the effect is celebratory. To that end, the “rag-tag gang of ragamuffins who take on the kingmakers of New York” are positioned to win our hearts, especially when they’re dancing. Demonstrating strength and vigor, these young men are thrilling to watch. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography gracefully transforms the strikers’ angry fists into releves, leaps, pirouettes, and acrobatic flips.
As Pulitzer, John Dossett is a stern figure whose destiny is shaped by the rebellious young man, and union organizer. Jeremy Jordan’s Jack Kelly is a robust youth. Twisted by life, but never jaded, he strives to overcome some dire straits. Broadway veteran Capathia Jenkins, portrays a singer in a risqué nightclub, and Jack’s true blue ally. Surprisingly, Kara Lindsay plays the romantic heroine as a genuine and believable force. But as one can predict, when there are children on the stage, the most adorable actor is the littlest boy in the gang, played by Matthew J. Schechter the night I saw the show. (Lewis Gosso alternates in the role.)
Harvey Fierstein, author of “Torch Song Trilogy” and “La Cage Aux Folles,” has adapted the movie “Newsies” for the stage with demonstrative compassion. He gets the slang, and the New Yawk accents. But unlike his earlier hits, this production never really succeeds in carrying us to the height of emotion. The score, which has been expanded from the movie is a series of Broadway anthems, (Alan Menken and Jack Feldman) none of which are especially memorable.
Tobin Ost’s set design of a metallic looking jungle gym is a softer version of the high-tech scaffolding and catwalk in the season’s revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” “Newsies” also offers a gentler opportunity to root for the underdog. If you want to join the spirit of Occupy Wall Street without the inconveniences of camping out, the show provides some high-energy entertainment.
“Newsies” is a limited run through August 19th at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street. For tickets call Ticketmaster at 866-870-2717, go to Ticketmaster.com, or visit the box office.
Photos By Deen van Meer