Monday, September 26, 2011

REVIEW: “NEWSIES” @ THE PAPER MILL PLAYHOUSE

Today, when a click of the mouse accesses a newspaper online, it's hard to conceive that at the turn of the 20th century and for a while thereafter, the "papes" were sold on street corners by street urchins called "newsboys," or "newsies." These kids, most of them orphans, had to pay the publishers up front for the papers they took to sell and were not permitted to return for a refund the ones they didn't. And if the banner (the headline) wasn't very interesting, there was a good chance sales would be tepid and the kids would lose money.

Based on a not-very-successful 1992 Disney film, the world premiere production of Newsies on the Paper Mill Playhouse stage tells the tale of a real-life Newsies strike of 1899 occasioned by the rise in prices from 50 cents to 60 cents per hundred "papes." The script has a new book by Harvey Fierstein, but the music of Alan Mencken and Jack Feldman has been retained, if reordered. It's a fairly typical David-and-Goliath labor story (think Norma Jean), but the use of projected graphics, wonderful (and very functional) scenery that moves around the stage in a myriad of configurations, and a very talented cast of dancers and singers makes for a satisfying and entertaining show.

Fierstein has added a love story involving a scrappy female reporter who breaks the story. That she is the daughter of one of the publishing moguls makes her falling in love with newsy leader Jack Kelly a bit far-fetched, but, hey, this is Broadway, not real life!

If the newsy who gets his picture on the paper's font page is "King of New York," then dancing is king of this production. Christopher Gatelli deserves kudos for the intricate and interesting choreography executed by an energetic and nimble chorus of young male dancers. Dance routines include stomp, unison dancing, clogging, acrobatics and even dancing with their feet on newspaper pages! Director Jeff Calhoun keeps things humming along at a well-oiled clip (that's a compliment, not an insult) with characters running up and down the stairs in the towers of metal scaffolding, moving them around the stage while still having the breath and oomph to sing!

The leads dance and sing with enthusiasm and skill. As Jack Kelly, Jeremy Jordan is a winning rascal, yearning to live in Santa Fe or exhorting his boys to "Seize the Day" and gain success in their cause. If Jordan is the heart behind the strike, Ben Fankhauser's Davey is the brains. Clearly better off than the usual newsy (he has parents and a real home), Davey comes up with a plan to form a union and is willing to talk to Pulitzer on their behalf. And Kara Lindsay is a luscious Katherine Plumber, girl reporter, who breaks out of covering entertainment to writing an article about the strike that lands on the Sun's front page. And her suggestion that they extend the strike to include all child laborers really gets the ball rolling.

Support is ably supplied by Andrew Keenan-Bolger as the crippled newsboy Crutchie and an adorable (and accomplished) Vincent Agnello as Davey's 10-year-old brother (RJ Fattori takes this role at matinees). John Dossett is appropriately nasty as Joseph Pulitzer without being really evil, which makes his capitulation more believable. Menace is provided by Brendon Stimson and John E. Brady as the strike-busting Delancey twins and Nick Sullivan as Bunsen, the corrupt head of the "Refuge," where vagrant children are taken and mistreated. Kevin Carolan looks the part of Gov. Theodore Roosevelt who wants to get the bullies who are manhandling the kids. Helen Anker has a nice turn as performer Medda Larkin in whose theater Jack Kelly hides from the authorities; "Don't Come a-Knocking" is a tribute to the burlesque that existed in lower New York during the period.

The music is glorious, although almost every number is a rousing show-stopper, which after a while is a a bit tiresome. One longs for a quiet ballad or an intimate moment.  Tobin Ost's metal scaffolding recalls skyscraper skeletons, and Jeff Croiter's lighting design appropriately signals changes in mood and time of day. Sven Ortel is to be commended for the aforementioned projection design; the scene where the Brooklyn newsies walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to join their Manhattan counterparts is reminiscent of the revolutionaries marching down the Paris boulevards in Les Miserables. Screens on the scaffolding are splashed with newspaper articles, and a blackboard prints out the headlines as though they've just been written! Jess Goldstein's costumes evoke the era and the characters very well, and the orchestra directed by David Holcenberg provides rousing accompaniment to match the vitality onstage.

Playwright Fierstein et al have worked magic with a second-rate Disney opus; of course, Menken and Feldman's music helped. Newsies is a marvelous tribute to the incredible spirit of the underdog going up against the Man. While you may not come out of the theater humming a melody, you'll be buoyed on a cloud of good feeling and heartened by the energy emanating from the talented kids on stage. I heartily recommend Newsies for theatergoers of all ages.

Newsies will be performed eight times a week, Wednesday through Sunday, through October 16. Paper Mill Playhouse is located at 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.379.3636 or visit online at www.papermill.org. Groups of 10 or more can receive up to a 35% discount on tickets and should call ext. 2438.

(Photo by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of Paper Mill Playhouse)