Leaping lizards, Batman! Or should I say “leapin’”, because the energetic assembly of boys at the heart of the new musical “Newsies,” at the Nederlander Theater, tends to tends to speak in a working-class patois that drops the “g” and extols the virtues of “my brudder.” Whether leaping or leapin’, this acrobatic ensemble injects more dancing into any Broadway production since +Billy Elliott+.
Like +Billy+, +Newsies+, based on a flop Disney movie of 1992, is centered around a strike: the moment in 1899 when New York City newsboys went up against Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst and other press barons who raised the distribution price charged to delivery boys. This attempt to increase profits and circulation, however, sparked poor street kids throughout the boroughs to mobilize. They enact their defiance on a three-level metal set that the able director, Jeff Calhoun, occasionally pitches too much to play to the patrons in the balcony.
Unlike Disney blockbusters such as +Mary Poppins+ and +The Lion King+, the +Newsies+ film wasn’t an obvious choice for Broadway. It is boycentric, and its romance was tepid. For the stage version, however, Harvey Fierstein hatched a book that gives the newsboys’ leader, Jack Kelly, a love story with Katherine Plumber, a young, privileged reporter trying to parlay coverage of the strike into her first big scoop.
If the book succeeds in making the hardscrabble boys more lovable, its scenes involving Pulitzer act as a drag on the evening’s momentum. And the love scenes – in a star-making turn, Jeremy Jordan plays Jack; Kara Lindsay is Katherine – more than once caused my inner urchin to utter “oh, brudder.”
But fear not, oh females! Ever since Belle taught the Beast to appreciate reading, the Disney machine has required the main girl to show pluck. Thus Katherine is given a witty ditty, “Watch What Happens,” about how hard it is for a reporter to craft a lead sentence. The lyrics, by Jack Feldman, reach their peak there and in the show’s trademark anthem, “King of New York.”
The score, by Alan Menken, may not belong among his best; frequently, a snatch of melody will summon up a stronger snatch of melody from Menken’s +Little Shop of Horrors+ or +Beauty and the Beast+. Regardless: hooks will make their way into your brain.
The glory of +Newsies+, though, is in its dancing. Christopher Gattelli, the choreographer, has cooked up a vocabulary of awe-inducing backflips, balletic pirouettes, and nifty twirls that look back to +Seven Brides for Seven Brothers+ and forward into some yet-to-be-hatched routine for Lady Gaga’s backup boys.