Theatre Review: “Newsies” @ Papermill Playhouse, 10/08/11

The energetic newsboys of Newsies are going to help change the Broadway landscape once again (if it does, in fact, land on Broadway this Spring). This show is a major throwback to an earlier era of musicals, and yet it seems completely fresh and unique. I walked out feeling like I’ve seen a old-school 50’s styled musical, but the updated vocal styling’s, choreography, and set design keeps Newsies in the 21st Century.  That is the reason why there is so much hype and excitement surrounding this production. It’s fresh, yet familiar. The creators, Harvey Fierstein (book), Alan Menken (music), and Jack Feldman (lyrics), have done an incredible job recreating this cult movie classic into a theatrical masterpiece worthy of the Broadway stage.

Back in 1992, I remember seeing Newsies in the movie theatres as an 11 year old. The story seemed to be written just for me. I was ready to take on the world – the kids in Newsies did, so why couldn’t I? I realized that my dreams could actually come true. That power of dreaming is exactly why Newsies is going to be so successful. You can never stop dreaming. Even 19 years later, I’m still dreaming, being inspired and wanting to “seize the day”. And that’s the best part – every age can walk away from this production inspired to do something great. That inspiration and raw energy is infectious.

The Newsies, Newsies at Paper Mill Playhouse, Photo by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of Paper Mill Playhouse

Starting with the music, Alan Menken’s score is absolutely thrilling. I was tentative at first when Jack (Jeremy Jordan) opened the show with a different arrangement of “Santa Fe”. I was nervous that my favorite songs would be changed and my expectations ruined. But as soon as the next scene started with the newsboys singing, “Carrying the Banner”, I knew I was going to love it. There are several new songs in the production. Katherine (Kara Lindsay), Jack’s love interest and daughter of newspaper mogul, Joseph Pulitzer (John Dossett), beautifully sings “Watch What Happens” toward the end of Act I. Another great addition is “Don’t Come a-Knocking” that Jack, Katherine and Medda (Helen Anker) sings in Medda’s Theatre.

The updated arrangements and orchestrations (Danny Troob) of classic songs like “Santa Fe” and “Seize the Day” are perfect. The best new song arrangement, besides “Santa Fe”, is “Once and For All” at the end of the 2nd Act. I get chills even thinking about it. The updated choral arrangements are absolutely fantastic, especially when an entire chorus of newsboys are blending together like glue.  There is a reason that several times throughout the production, the show stopped (often mid-song) to thunderous applause.  Basically, I’ll be extremely disappointed if this production doesn’t get a cast recording, because I wanted to relive the score the second I walked out of the theatre (and that’s a rare feat for any production in my book).

Then, there is the riveting newsboy choreography created by Christopher Gattelli that takes the original choreography by Kenny Ortega (High School Musical) and pumps it up with the best kind of steroids. These triple-threat newsboys could do it all and with the energy of a ten year old after a sugar rush. They flew across the stage with flips, cartwheels, and round-offs and then landed triple pirouettes with ease. Gattelli created a “newsboys” style of dance that connected all of the movement together and never once felt out of place. Throughout the production they would move across the stage during scene changes and kept the energy going throughout the entire production so there was never a dull moment. The beginning of Act 2, they blew the roof off with a full cast tap number to “King of New York.” It was unbelievable.

I felt like I had seen something ground breaking like seeing the original Jerome Robbin’s choreography in West Side Story or Fosse’s iconic stylings in Cabaret. Some day, students will be learning the choreography of Newsies in their “Intro to Choreography” class as they earn their BFA degree in Musical Theatre.

Fierstein’s book was also updated and fully realized for the stage. Yes, there were some changes from the movie, but nothing that felt out of place or left out. The character developments and arcs were right where they needed to be especially for Jack Kelly at the end of Act 1 when he sang “Santa Fe” (which Jordan blew everyone out of their seat when he belted the climax of the song). Amazing. There were a few things that felt a little forced in the script, but I think they will be able to iron out those kinks if it transfers to Broadway.

The loyalty tying those working children together and their cause for better working conditions is compelling. It’s impossible not to love them and what they are fighting for. The interesting part is that even a 100 years later, the younger generation still needs to fight for their voice to be heard.  Obviously, the conditions have dramatically changed, but children still need a voice and Newsies let’s them have one!

Kara Linsey (Katherine Plumer) and Jeremy Jordan (Jack Kelley), Newsies at Paper Mill Playhouse, Photo by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of Paper Mill Playhouse

The cast could almost literally transfer as is to Broadway and I would be 100% happy. If I was transferring it to Broadway, I would make sure Jeremy Jordan was attached to the project. (That means, of course, that Bonnie & Clyde will have to close in January/February. With Wildhorn’s recent track record with Wonderland, it might very well happen.) Jordan is not to be missed. His love interest, Katherine (Kara Lindsay) was equally as impressive. This will be Ms. Lindsay’s Broadway debut and a perfect role to showcase her beautiful voice and tenacious attitude. (She reminded me of Sutton Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie.)  I wasn’t totally sold on Davey (Ben Fankhauser), Kelly’s best friend, but he did a fine job. I especially loved Crutchie (Andrew Keenan-Bloger). He always put a smile on my face. The newsboys were perfect – all triple-threats and one of the finest choruses I’ve ever seen on a stage. Each character was unique, yet they worked together as one. It was very impressive.

It’s rare for me to walk out of a production and feel so connected to it that I instantly want to see the show again. Newsies was one of those shows for me. It also happened with Spring Awakening, American Idiot and Next to Normal but those shows I was hooked for very different reasons.  All three of those shows were breaking musical theatre boundaries and I applauded it. Newsies, on the other hand, sticks to old-fashioned musical theatre and yet seems completely updated and fresh as something like American Idiot and Next to Normal was. The best part is that even though Disney Theatricals is producing the piece, this doesn’t feel like one of Disney’s over-produced productions like The Lion King or Tarzan. It already has real “street” cred in New York (the New York Times absolutely loved it), and the Tony Awards wouldn’t be able to overlook it.

Not only will it be a critical success, but the show will easily recoup their investment. It has a universal appeal. My nieces, ages 10 and 13, loved it and they are some fiercest critics I know. The fan-girls and fan-boys will come out in droves and their parents will also enjoy it! It already has brand recognition with the 1992 movie, but it’s not based on an original dramatic movie turned into a musical like Legally Blonde or Shrek. It was already a musical and so there isn’t any awkward adaptations surrounding the production like Catch Me If You Can had.

It would be huge missed opportunity if Newsies doesn’t transfer to Broadway. Not only will the masses not be able to see this overwhelmingly fantastic production, but Newsies’ story deserves to make headlines in New York City. It will sell-out and I have a sneaking suspicion that if all goes as planned, then they should get ready to win the Tony Award for Best Musical. It’s just that good.

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4 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “Newsies” @ Papermill Playhouse, 10/08/11

  1. I’m hoping it comes to Broadway. It’s a show I’ve been interested in seeing since I first heard about it. Loved the movie, so there was worry that the staged version might not be as good, but I keep hearing such fantastic things about it!

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