The strong pro-union message pumping through “Newsies: The Musical” will thrill some viewers as much as it irks others, but otherwise this new tuner is likely to please audiences craving clean, keen and tween-friendly entertainment. Cleverly scavenged from Disney’s 1992 screen dud, with a trim script by Harvey Fierstein and extra songs by original creatives Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, this lusty saga of striking newsboys in yesteryear Gotham should appeal to twenty- and thirtysomethings who teethed on the DVD release as well as the older crowd who enjoy nicely traditional musicals.
Plenty of frisky dancing, several stirring anthems and an exuberant production staged by Jeff Calhoun with a handsome company and impressive visuals score a winner for Paper Mill Playhouse. Like the two-act legit version of “Aladdin” that bowed in Seattle over the summer, this Disney Theatrical Prods.-backed stage adaptation is targeted to regional, stock and amateur stagings rather than a large-scale Broadway berth.
Looking more like a dark Leonardo DiCaprio than pic’s kid star Christian Bale, Jeremy Jordan shines as the brave, brooding Jack Kelly who organizes an unruly crew of newsboys in 1899 to oppose a scheme by publishing mogul Joseph Pulitzer (a ripely villainous John Dossett) to cut into their meager earnings.
The major difference in the film and stage versions is Fierstein’s re-gendering of Bill Pullman’s screen character into a spunky girl reporter, who becomes Jack’s love interest Katherine and is vivaciously played by newcomer Kara Lindsay. Their new ballad “Then I See You Again” is not so hot but she gets a feisty solo, “Watch What Happens,” to neatly establish her spirited nature. Detail on the secondary figures is sacrificed to speed up the story, but bright turns by Andrew Keenan-Bolger as Crutchie, Ben Fankhauser as Jack’s better-bred ally Davey and Tommy Bracco as pugnacious Brooklynite Spot Conlon flesh out the blanks. Picturesquely garbed by Jess Goldstein in raggedy knee-pants and vests, the smudge-faced ensemble of newsies physically range from hunky to adorable as they whirl energetically through Christopher Gattelli’s athletic choreography. A knockout in the dance-driven show is the gang’s clattering tap number across tables with Katherine to “King of New York.”
Further propelling Calhoun’s swift staging is Tobin Ost’s fluid design of three towering Erector Set-like metal units that pivot and reconfigure while housing roll-down screens for Sven Ortel’s numerous projections. Jeff Croiter’s lighting often tints the visuals with blues and sepias to suggest rotogravure days.
Along with creating a more memorable duet for the sweethearts, other needed tweaks include mopping up some anachronisms among the script and lyrics. But essentially the musical is in crowdpleasing form.
It’s hard not to like an upbeat story about triumphant ragamuffins, so regional prospects are favorable and schools will find the show a relief from reviving “Annie” and “Oliver!” While “Newsies” may be too earnest for Broadway circulation, it’s a vigorous David-and-Goliath tale rendered with old-school skill.