Newsies at The National Theatre, Reviewed
In 1992, the streets of the American suburbs echoed with choruses of girls singing the songs of Newsies. Quoting lines from the film, they opined over Christian Bale and Bill Pullman’s career as a seize-the-day newspaper man. Newsies fans—theater geeks and writer-types—were a rag-tag generation who loved the movie but never had a live musical, until one day, all that changed.
Newsies, the musical, debuted at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse in 2011, nearly two decades after late Gen-Xers and early Millennials spent their slumber parties singing “Carrying the Banner” and “Santa Fe.” (In 1994, this particular critic once made all the guests who preferred Bale over Moscow to get their sleeping bags off the couch.) In 2012, the show opened on Broadway and a year later, took home the Tony Award for best new musical.
Now, in 2015, the touring show has finally arrived in Washington, and overgrown Newsies fans are buying drinks at the National Theatre while parents line up to get Newsies t-shirts for their kids who were not yet born when the film came out.
This sort of cross-generational ticket-selling is relatively rare in musical theater; usually, it’s the grandparents and the kids, not the young professionals and the kids. But the hype is much deserved. So much of what the benevolent behemoth Disney Theatricals has done to transfer the film to the stage works very, very well. Fans of the film will be mostly happy, and the kids who don’t know otherwise, thrilled.
Alan Menken’s gorgeous score and catchy songs have been largely left intact, with additional lyrics by Jack Feldman, and a new book by Harvey Fierstein. It’s important to remember, in a day and age when so many Broadway shows are based on cult classic films, that Newsies was always a musical, and the stage adaptation is more akin to fellow hits like Once and American in Paris than flops like Honeymoon in Vegas and Dr. Zvihago.
On the current tour, Dan DeLuca plays Jack Kelley, a charismatic orphan who leads a crew of striking newsboys after Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard) jacks up the prices on his young distributors, who proceed to sing and dance their way through lower Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century.
The dancing is the best on the road by far. Most touring musicals may have two guys who can turn pirouettes; Newsies has five, and they all land them as straight as you’ll see ballet dancers do at the Kennedy Center. (Original choreography was by frequent Michael Jackson collaborator Kenny Ortega, the musical is credited to Christopher Gattelli.)
There’s little change in the sepia-toned aesthetic, but there is a major plot switch: instead of Jack falling for his pal David’s sister, the love interest is a young female reporter in a shirtwaist, who replaces Pullman’s character. Reluctantly, I must admit this works, even if there was only one Nellie Bly. What will trip up anyone looking for a little more logic is Fierstein’s decision to recast Jack as an aspiring artist instead of an aspiring cowboy. His longing for Santa Fe (“Won’t you keep a candle burning? Won’t you help me find my way?”) seems like a crazy pipe dream as a result.
But DeLuca’s mournful singing is solid, and “Watch What Happens,” the typewriter ballad for Katherine (Stephanie Styles), is easily the best of the new tunes. “Something to Believe In,” however, is a rather hackneyed new love duet. The ensemble singing is not as robust as it could be, but it’s generally good theater manners to cut good dancers some slack. As David, Jacob Kemp sounds fine as long as he’s singing, but his fake New York accent makes him sound like he got lost coming from a Neil Simon play in Yonkers.
Oh well. It was Bale, not Moscow, who managed to launch a career from Newsies. For all who admired either fine fella, watching this musical is a chance to feel like you’re gonna be 14 forever. As Jack would say, “It’s a feeling time can’t never take away.”
The musical runs to June 21 at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. $48–$203. (202) 628-6161. thenationaldc.org.
Handout photo by Deen van Meer.