Newsies the Musical at Paper Mill Playhouse
When I mention to most folks my age that the theater world has finally hunkered down and turned the 1992 film Newsies into a Broadway caliber musical, their usual response is, “What took them so long?” Indeed, my friend. Indeed. So when two gal pals and I braved bridges and tunnels this past weekend towards Paper Mill Playhouse (how appropriate!) in New Jersey, the nine year olds inside us burst forth into a car ride sing-along. Now, most of you are aware of my undying love for Newsies, but if you’re unfamiliar, please take a peek at my Newsies Appreciation Post or watch this little information video. Ok? Good, because I could go and re-hash throughout the beginning of this piece about my dorkitude, but we’ve got to move along to this actual production.
Adapted by Harvey Fierstein with Disney’s own Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman, this New Jersey production has “Broadway Bound” written all over it. Heck, it was even better than some of the sludge that’s out there now (cough…cough…nah I won’t go there). I really must applaud this regional theater for surpassing a lot of NY shows in not only quality, but in sheer energy. None of these actors were phoning it in; they know how important this show is to its audience and to their futures in the biz. The crowd was composed of the area’s usual theater goers as well as New Yorkers, like me, who ventured across state lines to catch a glimpse of a favorite film turned show. I know Paper Mill has a long history of quality productions and a large subscriber base, but I’m willing to bet that Newsies is not only their most in demand ticket in the theater’s history, but also that this particular show has seen the most out of area audience members. There’s a reason for that, the show was damned good.
First off, the show’s best adherence to its source material has got to be the phenomenal choreography and dance numbers. Seemingly including of some of Kenny Ortega’s original choreography, Christopher Gattelli made definite changes here and there, but kept the overall wild angst from the film. Watching the news boys pirouette, backflip and leap across a live stage was something I always yearned for while watching my VHS tape on my too small TV and they truly delivered. A truly fantastic original addition is the riveting tap number that’s included in the second act opening “King of New York”. I seriously didn’t believe that the dancing newsboys could be improved upon, and then…Gattelli gave them tap shoes. Swoon.
Here’s a bit of their dancing prowess from The View:
Aiding the exhilarating dance numbers was the stage the newsies had to work with. Scenic designer Tobin Ost created a three tiered, three columned set of movable metal rafters which provided the gritty and industrial ambiance of 1899 New York. Then, covering one side of the rafters in projection screens, Ost can move the scene from the Medda’s vaudeville theater to Pulitzer’s posh office and even project printing press, typewriter, and newspaper scrawling animations. The whole device was very cool. I only wish that the stage was a little larger so that the newsboys had more room to dance. I had to hold my breath at times when I feared one would backflip or grand jeté into a wall of metal. (They didn’t, they’re professionals). But in the inevitable move to Broadway I imagine a larger stage and more newsboys to dance. Dance newsboys! Dance!
Here’s a little teaser trailer for the whole show shere you can see the awesome sets, projection screens and a bit of the outstanding “King of New York” tap number.
Now, any great Newsies fan will fully acknowledge that fact that Christian Bale in the role of Jack “Cowboy” Kelly was A) Sexy as hell and B) that he couldn’t sing a lick. However, Jack as played by Jeremy Jordan is a whole new story. My first reaction upon hearing Jordan sing “Santa Fe” was, “Oh my god… “Santa Fe” is like…a song now.” I think we all knew that a stage production would find an adequate singer for its lead role and Jordan filled that need nicely. I do think his personal swagger was a big more suited for, say, Spot Conlon (oh I’ll get to Spot later) but perhaps it’s just hard adapting to anyone besides Mr. Bale. Hopefully with further success of this musical, that nostalgia may diminish. A notable absence was Bill Pullman’s character Bryan Denton. (Side note: Pullman couldn’t sing either, and it was just as charming). They’ve replaced Denton’s new reporter with a lady reporter named Katherine Plumber, a romantic interest for Jack and representation of the budding suffrage movement. I have to admit I liked this change. Let’s face it, Newsies is quite a sausage fest and it definitely needed a bit of feisty female input. Kara Lindsay brought spunk and a great belt to the role. Her involvement in “King of New York” was super cute and her song was probably my favorite of the new additions. But honestly? I think my favorite performance was that of Ryan Breslin in the role of Race. Now, the character in the film was originally played by Doogie BFF Max Casella with the name Racetrack. I’m not really sure why they changed it, too suggestive of gambling maybe? Oh Disney! But this dude put forth a powerhouse of a performance. His comedic timing was spot on, his attitude perfect and his lead in “King of New York” just right. Not to mention the kid did his backflips with the cigar still in his mouth. Hey, at least Disney let him keep the cigar. Bravo Racetrack! (I’m still calling him that).
Now, like any new musical that’s doing an out of NYC trial, there are a few things that definitely need tweaking. I’m really just assuming here that this show is going to head over to Broadway sometime in the near future; in fact I think it would be a shame if it didn’t. So the changes that I would make have more to do with adhering to the original film, yet maintaining their additions. Mr. Fierstein, are you reading? First, I have to deal with the issue of the amazing character that is Spot Conlon. See, a good number Newsies fans claim Spot Conlon as their favorite character. He’s got all the best lines, has the best swagger, the best prop (that awesome cane!) and is just the total badass package. This role NEEDS to be beefed up for this show. The actor chosen to play Spot Conlon was, well, a little short. I’m not talking just short here, I mean noticeably petite. I don’t have a problem with this direction of physicality; in fact I think Spot needs to be markedly different looking than the other newsies. The problem is that they had this same actor very obviously play another role earlier in the show. My brain automatically saw the other guy and NOT Spot Conlon when we were introduced to Spot Conlon. It was most unfortunate. I am suggesting that whoever plays Spot needs to be unseen or at least unnoticeable until Spot is introduced; be that recasting or just having the poor guy not be in the first act. Along that line, the stage time of Spot as a whole really does need to be increased, and for the love of god please let him say one of his famous lines. Might I suggest, “Never fear, Brooklyn is here”? There was an added song titled “Brooklyn is Here,” but it really didn’t do Spot Justice. This was probably my least favorite of the new songs. It just didn’t have any punch and felt kind of random that the Brooklyn gang showed up kind of out of nowhere instead of in a time of need as is in the film.
Another character I thought in need expansion was Medda Larkin, as played by Helen Anker and famously embodied by Ann-Margaret in the film. First noted was that they axed the concept of her being Swedish, negating the fact that NYC in 1899 was a city swarming with immigrants. Ok fine, I can deal with that. She had a cute little vaudeville style number near the beginning of the show with a couple of backup dancers, but then we pretty much never heard from her again. Did I mention that Newsies was a total sausage fest? Medda had two songs in the film, and only one in the show. Come on now, people. I don’t mind that they axed “My Lovey Dovey Baby”, which I always found kind of a snoozer and replaced it with “Don’t Come a-Knocking.” Yet the cut of “High Times, Hard Times” was a poor choice. Not only does that song give another female character some greatly needed stage time, but it was a great song! That number within the rally scene really gave Newsies the feeling that other boroughs and overworked kids were getting involved in the cause. And if you’re lacking in cast members to create that ambiance, might I suggest utilizing your awesome scenic projections to add a crowd for that scene and the near-end gathering of the masses?
Finally, I think the timing and chronology of the show needs a little more tinkering. In adding more songs I think the reordering of scenes got a bit discombobulated. For example, I understand holding off the entrance of Spot and the Brooklynites until the Act Two rally, it might get a little confusing to have so many newsies interacting earlier on. But Jack’s whole second act back and forth with Pulitzer got a little confusing. First he’s inspired by Davey and Katherine in Act 2, Scene 2, but moments later in scene 3 he’s giving in to Pulitzer and his bribe. It would make more sense if it had been the other way around, and that way his absence in “King of New York” would make much more sense. Secondly, while Jeremy Jordan knocks “Santa Fe” out of the park, I think opening the show with it and closing the first act with it was a mistake. Open with “Carrying the Banner” and close Act One with “Seize the Day”. Just do it…no really. Put “Santa Fe” after Scene 4’s “Don’t Come a-Knocking” and before the next morning’s “And the World Will Know” and cut the pointless reprise. I’m serious about this. Opening with “Santa Fe” will make folks unfamiliar with the show extremely bored and confused. “Carrying the Banner” is the perfect introductory song to a rag tag group of newsies and ending Act One with “Seize the Day” has the potential to be a show stopper moment (much like ‘King of New York” is for the opening of Act Two.) if these demands are not met, a disaster beyond your imagination will occur. I mean…uh, sorry wrong musical.
Now that I think more about it, perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps Newsies has been made into a stage production at just the opportune moment. If this show had been created during the high times of the 90s or even the early 2000s, the message wouldn’t be so poignant. The backstory of the newsboy strike of 1899 is rich in social commentary with themes of corporate greed and union bashing. Now in our times of economic crisis, hard recession, the protests to occupy Wall St., and looming second depression, Newsies strikes a chord that it wouldn’t have ten years ago. How fortunate for us then, that we have a musical from the past that can actually mirror the present. I truly hope Newsies comes to Broadway. I’ll even carry a banner when I go see it.