The hallmarks of Disney on Broadway — lavishly expensive sets and costumes, state-of-the art automation and writers seemingly under the direction of some marketing wizard from Burbank — are thoroughly and gratifyingly absent in “Newsies,” the corker of a family musical from the Mouse House. Sparked by a star-making performance from Jeremy Jordan, a tunefully friendly score from Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, and high-leaping choreography by Christopher Gattelli, “Newsies” is Disney’s happiest outing since “The Lion King.”
The purveyors of this movie-inspired specimen made the unusual choice of starting with one of the studio’s biggest flops. The 1992 live-action tuner was a quick failure with critics and audiences, although it has gone on to develop a cult following in ancillary. Here the material — suggested by Manhattan’s Newsboy Strike of 1899 — proves more suited to stage than to screen.
Certainly, the production has overtones of “Oliver!” and “Annie,” with a dollop of “Les Miserables” in the strike sequences. All of which turn out to be big positives. High spirits go a long way toward countering several weaknesses of the evening, as some will no doubt carp about simplified plotting and two early scenes that take too much time and pay off too little.
The show, which was already better-than-average in its premiere last September at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, has been further enhanced. Songwriters Menken (“Beauty and the Beast”) and Feldman (“Copacabana”) have contributed four new songs, along with several written for Paper Mill. The best of these is the romantic ballad “Something to Believe In” and the heroine’s tunefully bright “Watch What Happens.” Librettist Harvey Fierstein, too, has punched up his joke book, providing a breezy if simplistic framework. Director Jeff Calhoun (“Will Rogers Follies”) ably handles the storytelling around Tobin Ost’s innovative set, which consists of three erector-set towers combined in different configurations (and which display effective projections from Sven Ortel).
One highlight is the choreography by Gattelli (“South Pacific”), which features 16 boys jumping, bounding and comporting themselves like a gang of Jets on a West Side playground. Gattelli’s dancers do an airborne, legs-akimbo leap that lifts the spirits, although after the 60th such leap, one begins to think it might be easier than it looks. This may not be Broadway’s most artistic choreography, but it’s surely the most exuberant dancing currently on the Rialto.
The large ensemble of boys also contributes full-throated vocals, which at the performance attended were hampered by severe overamplification. Still, the music department of Danny Troob, Mark Hummel and Michael Kosarin give composer Menken his best-sounding show since “Beauty and the Beast.”
Jordan, most recently the gun-toting antihero of director Calhoun’s production of “Bonnie and Clyde,” lights up the stage as rough-and-tumble newsie Jack Kelly. He effortlessly charms the audience, and if he looks considerably older than 18, it’s no matter.
Broadway veteran John Dossett does everything he can as the villainous Pulitzer, saddled as he is with subpar scenes and a weak song (which he is forced to sing twice). Kara Lindsey, in her Broadway debut, makes an attractively perky leading lady. Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Ben Fankhauser offer fine support as Kelly’s lieutenants, while Matthew J. Schechter, who alternates in the role of the cutest and littlest newsie, makes a strong comedy contribution.
With advance sales up to $8 million, it’d be no surprise if this supposedly limited Broadway engagement converts to an open-ended run. Touring prospects look strong.