Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Newsies

As the lights come up on the first scene, a young man with a bum leg and his stronger, abler friend awaken to greet another gray, dirty summer morning on the Bowery. From the rooftop they've been spending warm, rain-free nights on, they contemplate their dismal future, soon bursting into a song about how wonderful it would be to leave New York City for a cleaner, greener, less complicated place. Once the song ends and they return to their grim reality, they climb down from the roof and force themselves to face another tough day in the urban jungle.

Before I continue, I feel compelled to tell you that I am not describing a musical adaptation of Midnight Cowboy (although why no one has yet attempted a musical adaptation of Midnight Cowboy is beyond me.). Rather, I'm recounting the opening scene from the Broadway production of Newsies, which is sort of like Midnight Cowboy, at least in its vaguely homoerotic treatment of the gritty, male urban underclass. But lest you are thinking of cancelling your plans to bring some kids to see the show next time you're in town, please know that all comparisons end there: Newsies features no disturbing scenes of male hustling, no death by tuberculosis, and not a single weird woman rubbing a plastic rat all over her face in a Times Square automat at 3am. Also, it's not set in New York City in the late 1960s, but in 1899 (an equally grimy, if perhaps not quite as sleazy, time in the city's history). Unlike Midnight Cowboy, Newsies is good, clean fun--a sweet, upbeat story filled with likable, hard-working, earnest young idealists who support each other through thick and thin, join together to fight (usually peacefully) for what's right, and end up making the world a better place as a result of their pluck, ingenuity, and old-fashioned hard work. In short, Newsies is your typical Alger myth, tied up in shiny, cheerful Disney wrapping.

Since landing on Broadway in the early 1990s, Disney has not, as was the initial fear, destroyed the American stage musical as we know it, or succeeded, at least just yet, in transforming Broadway into a theme park. Sure, the commercial theater industry has changed significantly, and not always for the best, since Disney threw its producer's hat into the ring, but that's a whole other ball of wax. At present, Disney Theatricals has a Broadway record that's as inconsistent as anyone else's: they've had a few outright flops, a few shows that did well enough but that didn't set the world on fire, and a megahit the likes of which don't come along all too often, if ever, on Broadway, or in any entertainment medium, or in the universe.

Newsies may not be the artistically brilliant billion-dollar baby that The Lion King can claim to be--there are no hand-sewn masks or colorful, majestic processions through the aisles of the Nederlander Theater--but it's certainly well worth seeing nonetheless. Newsies hits all the marks that a solid, well-executed Broadway musical should hit, and then some. It's got a good cast telling a sweet, compelling story through catchy song and tightly choreographed dance. It is consistently beautiful to look at and to listen to. Its story offers something for everyone--kids, adults, and people of various political leanings. It somehow manages to be both ardently pro-union and big business at the same time, without ever seeming moronic in its congenially goofy embrace of everyone (even the guys who come off like rat-bastards through most of the show). Unless you're so far to the left that you wouldn't be caught dead seeing a Broadway show anyway, or so far to the right that you think Disney is evil because you think you saw a cloud in the shape of a fiery, gay penis in Dumbo or something, then you will likely find little about Newsies to be offended by. And if you're totally apolitical, no worries: this is a Disney show, after all, so the plot features a class-shattering, rags-to-riches, happily-ever-after love story for you to concentrate on, instead. With a little bit of kissing, of course, but not enough to gross out the many kids in the audience who are still in their latency stage.

An added strength is that much like The Lion King (and, perhaps coincidentally, unlike a number of other Disney musicals that have appeared on Broadway for shorter runs and fewer accolades), Newsies relies more on human bodies than it does on machinery for its spectacle. The plentiful dance sequences feature rows of muscular, beautiful dancers twisting, flipping, and leaping enthusiastically into the air, often while tossing enormous stacks of "papes" up or down to one another in carefully choreographed sequences. And while the plot of Newsies focuses almost entirely on young men--and thus features a huge cast with only a handful of women in it--the introduction, in the stage adaptation, of a female romantic lead feels less tacked-on than I was worried it might. Like the best Disney heroines, Katherine (Kara Lindsay) is plucky and headstrong, gets a lot of really good songs to sing all by herself, and, at her worst, matches scrappy, moody Jack Kelly (played by Corey Cott with a slamming, late-19th century working-class Irish-American accent)  in smarts, ingenuity, and bravery.

I have written plenty of negative things about Disney's role on Broadway in the course of my career, and I certainly won't promise that I won't do so again. But I'm willing to admit that on many occasions, Disney gets it right. Many years ago, I went to see The Lion King with a sneer on my face and my arms crossed defensively across my chest--and found myself in tears by the end of the very first scene. Newsies didn't cause me to tear up, but it certainly brightened my mood and made me happy to have seen it. This goes, as well, for the people I saw it with: My almost-eleven-year-old daughter and her friend both left the theater talking enthusiastically about how much they enjoyed the show, humming some of the catchier numbers, and asking if they could download the original cast recording of the show once they got home. If that's not an indication of time well spent at a Saturday matinee--and of a musical that does precisely what musicals are supposed to do--I don't know what is.
 

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