The cast, crew and invited guests of “Disney’s Newsies, the Musical” took to the streets of Millburn Sunday night following an electric review performance at Paper Mill Playhouse.
A boisterous and supportive crowd cheered every move of this stage adaptation of Disney’s 1992 film musical, then followed the cast to the Martini Bistro in downtown Millburn, where spotlights and a large tent were erected outside on the street to celebrate the beginning of the 73rd season on New Jersey’s biggest theatrical stage.
The celebration is concluded. The business of launching an ambitious musical — clearly with Broadway in its crosshairs — is just beginning.
The feel-good headline is that “Newsies” certainly looks like a blockbuster, with a dazzling set and a lively, attractive cast of 28.
Below the fold, though, flaws appear that suggest if “Newsies” makes it across the river, it might need some renovations along the way.
Jeremy Jordan (Broadway’s “West Side Story,” soon to be seen there as Clyde in the new musical “Bonnie and Clyde”) leads the young ensemble as Jack Kelly, the fictionalized leader of the historic newsboy strike of 1899. Kelly and his fellow ragamuffins represent the thousands of poor young boys who hawked newspapers on the streets of New York City for Joseph Pulitzer, Randolph Hearst and other publishers powerful enough to make or break presidential elections.
When the real Pulitzer and his cronies increased the wholesale price to the Newsies, cutting into their already-meager profits, these dead-end kids staged a successful strike that helped to raise awareness about and encourage reform of child labor laws.
On the stage, of course, not only does Jack win the strike, he gets the girl. And a curtain call.
Jordan, like many in the cast, delivers his lines with an impressive Bowery Boys accent and his clean, powerful voice resonates all the way to the back of the balcony. He and the show start off easy, as he pines for a life far away from the mean streets of Manhattan with the tender ballad, “Santa Fe.”
“Keep your small life in the big city,” he tells his pals, “Give me the big life in a small town.”
Bookwriter and Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein and director Jeff Calhoun, steadily build the intensity from there. Jack takes some new kids under his wing and shows them the tricks of the trade. (“Carrying the Banner” gives the Newsies a chance to explain and dance). Then, when Pulitzer hikes the price, Jack makes a stand. The others fall in line, form a union and call for a citywide strike.
Taking on some of the most powerful men in the city, they receive some vital support from Katherine (Kara Lindsay, who played Laura Ingalls here in “Little House on the Prairie, the Musical”), a spunky young journalist who wants to cover real news stories like the men do. Lindsay adorably frets about her character’s newswriting skills in “Watch What Happens,” a rare and welcome comic moment.
History tells us their efforts were successful and here we get to see the process, which includes rallies (the Newsies cleverly use newspaper pages in a slide-shoe dance routine) and, of course, confrontations with coppers and strike-busters. At Paper Mill, Gov. Teddy Roosevelt (Kevin Carolan) plays an essential role in the outcome.
Scenic designer Tobin Ost has erected a formidable set dominated by three-tier, spinning steel-beam risers that look like stairs for a subway platform. Video projections (above, in back and on retractable scrims covering the risers) broadcast colorful backgrounds and other images that help explain and push the story forward. Lighting designer Jeff Croiter adds flash and drama with intense white and blue lights.
The score, by Broadway and Disney Films legend Alan Menken, includes some catchy tunes but no show-stoppers (some new, some from Menken’s original movie score), while choreographer Christopher Gattelli offers only a few moments of real inspiration.
Others may feel excluded by the absence of a female chorus and a back-page romance that feels like it was forced into the plot to break up what is otherwise an all-boy’s club.
And, as villains go, if Joseph Pulitzer is the best you can do, then no prizes are likely forthcoming for dramatic conflict.
Let’s not bury the lead, however. For pure entertainment, “Disney’s Newsies, the Musical” delivers far more energy, style and fun than its Hollywood parent, a spectacular box-office flop that found new life and a cult audience on cable. The original may have set a low bar, but its stage progeny would seem destined for a far better life.
“Disney’s Newsies, the Musical” runs through Oct. 16 at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn. Tickets are $25 to $96. Discounts and season ticket plans available. For tickets and show times, call 973-376-4343 or visit www.papermill.org