In seeking material for film-to-stage productions, perhaps studios should raid their vaults for their biggest clunkers. Because Disney’s Newsies: The Musical — based on director Kenny Ortega’s 1992 big-screen musical flop and running through Oct. 16 at Millburn, N.J.’s Paper Mill Playhouse — is an extra!-extra!-special production that scrabbles hard to earn its ovations in the spotlight.
This is the rare stage show that dramatically improves upon its source material, a $15 million live-action musical that grossed less than $3 million. The play’s book, by Broadway vet Harvey Fierstein, both streamlines and expands upon the original story about a group of poor newsboys who organize a strike against media titans like Joseph Pulitzer in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City.
As Fierstein notes in an essay in the show’s program, one of the film’s chief claims to fame was ”the captivatingly inept singing of an adorably teenaged Christian Bale.” Bale’s role — head newsboy Jack Kelly, who yearns for a new life out West — is now played by the strong-voiced hunk Jeremy Jordan (soon to be seen on Broadway as Clyde Barrow in Frank Wildhorn’s musical Bonnie and Clyde). Jordan, like much of the energetic cast, projects a youthful energy and restlessness that’s suited to his character and the material.
One notable departure from the film is the elimination of Bill Pullman’s grizzled journalist/adviser. Instead, Jack gets a love interest in an ambitious reporter named Katherine (charming newcomer Kara Lindsay), who yearns to break out of writing for the society section to break front-page news. It’s a smart addition.
Composer Alan Menken, an eight-time Oscar winner for classics like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, delivers another memorably melodic score. While the standouts are ensemble numbers from the film such as ”Carrying the Banner” and ”King of New York” (the latter is a tap-tastic showstopper that opens the second act), he and lyricist Jack Feldman introduce several fetching new tunes as well, including Katherine’s delightfully double-talking patter song ”Watch What Happens,” in which she tries to resolve her complicated feelings for Jack and the story she’s hoping to break about the strike.
The show is not yet perfect. Director Jeff Calhoun has a tendency to go overly broad, with John Dossett’s Pulitzer occasionally verging into hamminess and Lindsay’s Katherine ending one scene with a too pat, on-cue head bob. And Tobin Ost’s elaborate, three-tiered erector-set scenic design sometimes fills so much of the stage that there’s little room for the ensemble to move. This is particularly unfortunate in the post-prologue opening number, ”Carrying the Banner.” But when the stage is clear, as it is in the first act finale, ”Seize the Day,” the ensemble brings a wow-inducing enthusiasm to Christopher Gattelli’s athletic and aggressive choreography. (I’d eliminate that prologue, too, and move Jack’s ballad ”Santa Fe” to later in the show so that this New York-centric story can truly open in New York.)
Disney has indicated that the Paper Mill’s production is an experiment, and that Newsies may have no further professional stagings. (At the very least, though, expect it to be licensed for high school productions — doubtless with many knicker-clad girls filling out the newsboy chorus.) That would be a shame. Not every new musical needs to be based on a movie hit, as Memphis and The Book of Mormon prove. And Newsies is a more joyous, audience-pleasing show than either of Disney’s last two Broadway attempts (the justly short-lived Tarzan and The Little Mermaid), easily outshining most new musicals of the last several seasons. So, come on, Disney. ”Open the gates and seize the day,” as your cap-wearing chorus sings. ”Don’t be afraid and don’t delay.” Broadway could use a fresh burst of good newsies. A?
(Tickets: PaperMill.org or 973-376-4343)