Advance Tickets Recommended
Cory Cott, John Dossett, Kara Lindsay, LaVon Fisher-Wilson, Ben Fankhauser
1, 2, 3, 7, N, Q, R, S at Times Sq.-42nd St.; A, C, E at 42nd St.-Port Authority Bus Terminal
||Tue-Wed, 7:30pm; Fri-Sat, 8pm; Wed, Sat, 2pm; Sun, 3pm|
I’ve heard them called “gateway musicals”: Shows that invite in younger fans, kids under 70 who find themselves curious about this “musical theater” they’ve heard so much about. Quality and style can vary widely, but they tend to be more recent additions to the Broadway canon. (Golden-age classics and spring-semester mainstays don’t count: Gateway musicals must be tough to mount in high schools, because without the struggle, where’s the allure?) Rent and Into the Woods both qualify, but so does Chess, that shapeless Reagan-era Halloween bag of goofy delights, and Jason Robert Brown’s oddly irresistible pity-party The Last Five Years. What’s required is a peculiar combination of soul-swelling optimism and anthemic pathos (or bathos, in a pinch). You’ve just described every musical ever written, sneer the cynics, but no: It’s harder to fake than you’d think.
Newsies has been an underground gateway since 1992, when it bombed as a movie musical. Disney intended the all-dancin’, all-singin’, all-picketin’ fantasy (based vaguely on the 1899 newsboys' strike and starring a smooth-cheeked, pre-Batty Christian Bale as the lead urchin) to establish a live-action beachhead for Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the songwriting team behind The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast; a young Kenny Ortega was hired to direct and choreograph. But Ashman died before work commenced (he was replaced as lyricist by Jack Feldman), and (like many Disney live-action projects) the film found neither an audience nor critical acclaim at the multiplex. Instead, Newsies entered home video and legend, spreading samizdat style from show choir to show choir, via its infectiously tuneful numbers, especially the audition mainstay “Santa Fe,” but also the roof-rattlers “King of New York,” “The World Will Know,” and “Seize the Day.” Really, how many new (or new-ish) musicals these days can lay claim to that many genuine world-beaters?
And so, after a brief twenty-year incubation period, Newsies is finally onstage where it belongs, in a Jeff Calhoun–directed production that’s as gloriously square as it is automatically ingratiating. Choreographer Christopher Gattelli masterfully channels both Jerome Robbins and Kenny Ortega–channeling–Jerome Robbins, then adds a good deal of his own custom style and launches his squadrons of whirling boys into the air, where they appear to hang for hours: It’s a Movement in movement. Ostensibly about a spontaneous turn-of-the-century labor action — touched off when the all-powerful New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer (John Dossett) jacked up the wholesale price of papers, squeezing the desperately poor kids who sell them — Newsies is really channeling the united and indomitable solidarity of musical theater nerddom, which continues to defy all ominous predictions of rising cynicism among the flinty, post-Millennial young. A single block of fromage set against a darkening world: This is what a Disney labor musical for kids (please take a moment to savor all the delicious ironies in that phrase) can achieve. Oldsters like myself are powerless to do anything but sing along. (Oh, who’s kidding whom? I was singing along before the house lights went down.)
The cast is uniformly strong, down to the rank and file. Ben Fankhauser stays just inside the lines as eggheaded brains-of-the-outfit Davey. You know a show’s self-generating goodwill when it’s pulling down big mid-scene applause for smaller roles, like those played by superb yeoman character-actor John Brady; as the nearly lineless Specs, dance captain Ryan Steele is a consistently big presence. (Granted, most of his time onstage is spent in midair.) Ryan Breslin and Aaron Albano make their mark as newsie foot-soldiers. My one regret is the set, which remains a Hollywood Squares grid of flimsy aluminum siege towers that fight the period feel: They feel more like scaffolding than set, and the “levels” they create don’t quite make up for their brutish intrusion into prime dance space. I kept praying for a wrecking ball: This show thrives on people power, and I object to large, dead objects that occupy real-estate meant for flesh-and-blood occupiers. So many little fists in the sky! You can practically hear high-school drama teachers salivating as they contemplate the casting options: So many bodies onstage! Spotlight moments for everybody!
Newsies' days as a subterranean sensation are over, I think: Disney has unveiled its finest fairy tale in over a decade, a fairy tale that, for once, doesn’t concern royalty or implied-royalty or peasants aspiring to royalty. There’s enormous magnetism in this show, both for children and the grown-ups who brought them, and why not? Why shouldn’t there be a Mouse-eared labor musical? Why shouldn’t musical fantasy attach itself to a struggle for social justice, however pseudohistorical or simplified? Newsies will be many young fans’ first Broadway experience. They’ll emerge knowing they’re not alone, and that there’s not just strength in numbers, but rhythm and harmony, too. Can't wait to see what Hannity makes of all this.