Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****
A plucky girl reporter and a story ripped from the pages of the history books. If the musical theatre gods came together to create a show just for me, it would be Newsies.
Unlike some of my friends, I'm a newcomer to Newsies. Until a year ago, I'd never seen the Disney movie and I'd never heard of the event on which it was based, the 1899 newsboys strike in New York City that pitted a ragtag bunch of teens against the press barons Hearst and Pulitzer. While the movie flopped, I enjoyed it.
And watching Newsies onstage was even more fun. It reminded me of the Disney musicals from the Sherman brothers that I loved as a kid: The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band and The Happiest Millionaire. Like Newsies, they combined real-life people and events with incredibly catchy songs, parts of which I could probably still sing.
Now I'll admit this a very traditional musical. It doesn't break new ground for Disney. It's not as imaginative as The Lion King or as magical as Mary Poppins. Tobin Ost's set is basically lots of scaffolding. It's not subtle, either. We don't get deep inside these characters and you don't need a road map to know where the story is heading.
What Newsies does it does with tremendous enthusiasm from beginning to end under Jeff Calhoun's direction. There's electrifying, acrobatic choreography from Christopher Gattelli, a rousing score by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman and plenty of humor amid the pointed social commentary in Harvey Fierstein's book.
How can you not love newsboys singing and dancing their way into your heart for the right to earn a living wage and bargain collectively? Newsies is at its most exciting when they're in midair, leaping and pirouetting and backflipping. I loved the ensemble numbers: "King of New York," "Seize the Day," and "Carry the Banner."
As Jack Kelly, the street-smart ringleader of the newsboys, Jeremy Jordan has a powerful voice and a 1,000-watt smile that made me smile just watching him. Kara Lindsay as the eager cub reporter Katherine is as delightful as I remembered from Little House on the Prairie at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis four years ago.
Sure, some of the portraits are broadly drawn, like John Dossett's Pulitzer, who precipitates the strike by charging the newsies more for the "papes" they hawk in order to increase his profits. And lots of critics have remarked on the similarity to Annie, subbing New York Gov. Theodore Roosevelt for his cousin Franklin.
But you're not going to Newsies for complex character studies. Sometimes there's merit in taking a traditional formula and executing it well. And in its own entertaining way, this is a thought-provoking show. It touches on corporate greed and child labor and the rights of workers to form unions, topics that are certainly in the news today.
Every once in awhile, I like to let down my cynical guard and revel in some good old-fashioned idealism. Newsies is a testament to the thrill of song and dance but it's also a reminder of how powerful words and images can be, especially when they're used as a force for good.