On Stage: Newsies Delivers (Paper Mill Playhouse)

I’m going to lay the cards right on the table. Until this week, I had never seen Newsies. It had been recommended to me time and time again, and it was in my Netflix queue but never made its way to the top spot for one reason or another. I am, though, a huge theater fan (as you might have guessed) and because of my growing interest in whatever Disney plans to bring to the stage in the future, I couldn’t delay my viewing of Newsies any longer. So a day before we were set to see the final dress rehearsal of Newsies at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, I finally watched the movie (even recognizing one of the songs) and while I felt it started off slow, I was hooked in the end.In case you aren’t familiar with the story, Newsies is based on the true story of the Newsboys Strike of 1899. Set in New York City, Jack Kelly and a group of boys who sell the newspapers around town, are caught in quite a predicament when Joseph Pulitzer decides to raise the price of papers by a tenth of a cent. The boys decide to rally against Pulitzer and the rest of the newspaper head honchos. With the help of new kid Davey – who knows just how important a union is – a worker’s cause, and Jack’s charisma, the boys hit conflict after conflict while working together to make a change.
But how well would the movie transfer to the stage? Here was a movie that bombed at the box office but grew to be a cult favorite. Most productions already face a challenge when they jump from one medium to the other. How would the story hold up? Would audiences connect with these characters? Would the songs be memorable enough to hum all the way home? And most importantly, would audiences be able to separate the two? Because no matter what changes and what stays the same, there’s no way around it – there is a huge difference between a stage musical and a movie musical.Make no mistake – this Newsies, with a book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman (the same duo who provided them for the movie), is a gem, even if there are many deviations.I’m sorry, Newsies purists.I hate to disappoint you right off the bat, but I promise you a majority of the alterations make sense and only enhance the original story. The characters, most especially Jack Kelly, gain depth. Bryan Denton (Bill Pullman) got the axe, and in his place is a female reporter named Katherine. Her quirkiness, energy, and sass will win you over. Truth is — she has as much to fight for as the boys do. A female reporter in 1899 covering serious stories? No way. She’s a little feisty, and skillfully fills Denton’s shoes. While I enjoyed Denton’s character and understood his purpose in the movie, I liked that the writers introduced a character that even the gals could relate to.

A new girl also equals a new love story for Jack Kelly. I was fully on board for this, but as the production progressed I was hoping for a bit more conflict, some intrigue. I love a happy ending as much as the next person (possibly even more), but the falling action of the story needs to be expanded for the audience to feel the triumph of the end. If anything that’s the weakness of this book, all the loose ends are tied up with a pretty bow. And I expected more. Jack’s motivation and reactions, in particular, weren’t always clear to me, like some details got lost along the way. There is, however, a surprise twist that caught me totally off guard and I really enjoyed (no spoilers here!)

In most areas, this production of Newsies, directed by Jeff Calhoun and twenty years in the works, is sharp. From start to finish, this talented cast performs like their lives depend on it. Their energy is explosive, their camaraderie is genuine — they ace every single element of the show from embodying the characters to the dancing and the singing. Much can be said for Jeremy Jordan, who leads the pack as Jack Kelly. He is a soulful version of Christian Bale’s original Jack; he is more in his head, still dreaming of the day he can move out west. Frankly, I would attend any show that Jordan was performing in. (And I will. He will be playing lead in Bonnie & Clyde on Broadway this fall. See you December 3, Jordan!) His voice is strong and defiant. Beautiful and full of emotion. He sets a high bar for the rest of the cast, who fall into place just as efficiently.

As Katherine, Kara Lindsay is a true delight. She easily transitions from being one of the boys to a woman with her own ambitions and an affection for Jack. (Jordan and Lindsay’s chemistry is unbelievable.) Her stand-out moment is a lovely little diddy, “Watch What Happens,” new to the Newsies song list. Her impressive singing chops laced in comedy is so enjoyable to watch. (And quite relatable for any writer out there!) Ben Faukhauser’s portrayal of a more “goody two shoe” Davey than the film is spot-on. His sensitivity yet dedication to the fight (and his family) are evident in every note he sings, every word he speaks. Rounding off the supporting cast is RJ Fattori as Les (who switches off with Vincent Agnello) who swiftly elicits “aww” after “aww” from the audience, and John Dossett as Pulitzer, Jack’s foil, who demands attention and order in his high stakes world. While his character toes the line between villain and softie, Dossett sings with conviction and rules with a big stick.

Two starring players in this production are the set design by Tobin Ost and choreography by Christopher Gattelli.

Ost’s set is minimal — three stories of steel that twirl and spin with screens that appear and disappear as the production moves along, similar to Rent’s initial run on Broadway or the recent revival of Ragtime. It is industrial, simple, but multi-faceted. The use of projection is seamless and never distracting (although a few of the headlines could appear a bit faster to flow with the music better).

Fans of the film will most definitely be looking forward to the dancing accompanying their favorite songs like “Seize the Day” and “King of New York.” In this production, the choreography is a triumph with twirling, tumbling, flipping, and tapping with grace and power all over the stage. The cast is beyond impressive, especially in one of the most creative dances I have ever seen — slipping and sliding and spinning on top of ripped pieces of newspaper.

You can’t dance, of course, without music. Unsurprisingly, Alan Menken and Jack Feldman take some exceptional music and make it better. Changes had to be made because of the differences in the movie and the book of the musical, yet most of the lyrical changes are subtle. The music is just as catchy as ever, and the additions of “Watch What Happens” (which I mentioned earlier) and “Then I See You Again” were thoroughly enjoyable.

This production of Newsies really has a lot going for it — even if it’s still a work in progress. Most noticeably the first act booms and the second deflates. Still audiences will not be able to contain their applause, rewarding this hardworking and enthusiastic cast with a standing O and clap along as they dance their caps off (literally) during the curtain call.

While I’m not sure if Newsies is ready for Broadway (it could eventually be marketed as the next Billy Elliot) or tight enough for touring productions without a little more balance given to the book, Newsies at the Paper Mill Playhouse is worth whatever means of transportation it takes to get you there. Audiences who are fans of the movie or new to it (like me) will surely appreciate and feel the passion of all those involved ricocheting off the walls. Most importantly, years and years of dedication have not tainted the relevance of this tale, if anything it has strengthened it. You can’t help but feel caught up in the plight of the newsies and all the young workers depicted — it is a story that transcends time and forces action and connection amongst all.

One thing is for sure… I hope there is a cast recording in the works!

* * *

Special thanks to Shayne Miller at Paper Mill Playhouse for inviting us to the final dress rehearsal. It was a fabulous night! And of course, Vincent Agnello for making Michelle’s dreams come true (and mine too)!

Newsies will be playing at Paper Mill Playhouse until October 16. There is also a special fan night on October 2. Please visit Paper Mill’s website for tickets and showtime information. The theater is located in Millburn, NJ but is less than an hour from New York City by train (plus the train station is in walking distance of the venue).

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A book publicist who loves writing about Disney and books, and sometimes Disney books.

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