‘Newsies’: Broadway’s latest hit goes back to basics

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The first thing you are likely to notice about the new hit Broadway musical “Newsies” is the refreshingly human scale of this show about a newspaper delivery boys’ strike in New York City a century ago.

Although it is a Disney production — based on a flop movie from 1992 — the musical is not over-produced in the style of the same company’s “Tarzan” or “Aida.” You never get the feeling, so prevalent at other contemporary musicals, that the creators are trying to camouflage bum material with technical razzle dazzle.

“Newsies” backed into Broadway with unusual modesty a month ago after a successful 2011 try-out engagement at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. The Disney organization hedged its bets in New York City by announcing the musical would have a limited engagement at the Nederlander Theatre through the end of the summer.

Reportedly, the property was originally selected by Disney for development — with a new book by Harvey Fierstein — primarily for school productions around the country. With a large cast of characters made up mostly of young people under the age of 20, the show would be perfect for high schools and community theaters.

The New Jersey test run demonstrated a larger commercial potential in “Newsies.” And, judging by the tumultuous audience response at the Broadway performance I caught last week — and the multiple Tony nominations yesterday — the “limited engagement” should continue for several years to come.

Without ever feeling heavy-handed, the show deals with serious issues — the abuse of working class people by their bosses, the way that city life can grind the spirit out of ambitious young people — but it’s all done in a lucid, entertaining style that is pleasingly old-fashioned.

“Newsies” is a throwback to a Broadway era when musicals were meant to play to large audiences of all ages and backgrounds by wrapping good stories and well-drawn characters in a strong book, tuneful score, and show-stopping dance numbers.

Unlike many of the Disney productions, which play like well-oiled machines, “Newsies” derives much of its power from the strong personalities of the actors on the stage.

Jeremy Jordan gives a genuine star-making performance as Jack Kelly, the newspaper hawker who leads the strike against management trying to squeeze more money out of the poor kids who sell papers on the street.

Like Hugh Jackman, Jordan is a potent combination of charisma and talent — a real leading man in a theater scene dominated by female musical comedy stars and eccentric male stars like Nathan Lane, Sean Hayes and David Hyde Pierce. Jordan is in the tradition of Robert Preston and Jerry Orbach — a real actor who can carry a show without overpowering it and who has all the necessary equipment for romantic leading man roles.

Here’s hoping that Broadway doesn’t quickly lose Jordan to the movies or TV.

Joe Meyers

One Response

  1. Good evening, Joe! Have you revisited the movie since seeing the play? Like you, I remember Newsies making barely a puddle, let alone a splash in 1992. Was the raw material for a great stage musical on the screen for two decades and we just missed it?