Can 500 Shrieking Girls Be Wrong…?
March 29, 2012
[At the time of the Newsboys Strike of 1899] There are 10,000 children living on the streets of New York....The newsboys constitute an important division of this army of homeless children. You see them everywhere....They surround you on the sidewalk and almost force you to buy their papers. They are ragged and dirty. Some have no coats, no shoes, and no hats….
Well, that would depend on whether you’re a shrieking girl.
Adults may have more of a problem with the newest Disney Broadway offering, NEWSIES, based on their movie of the same title that thoroughly bombed in 1992, doing under $3 million in gross sales.
NEWSIES is professionally and artfully done, won’t offend anyone, won’t corrupt the kiddies – actually, “bastard” is said once, but that’s just so the show will be cool – and may make you shriek, if you’re a girl, but it’s gentrified to the point of dullness.
When I think of a Disney movie or musical, I make the same connection as Benjamin’s advisor in “The Graduate”:
With the notable exception of Julie Taymor’s THE LION KING, Disney musicals have been sanitized to a point of non-controversy that makes Rick Santorum seem like a thug. This works reasonably well when the subject is pure fantasy – BEAUTY AND THE BEST, THE LITTLE MERMAID, AIDA – but when the musical’s subject is social reform, as it is with NEWSIES, it rings so utterly false as to be distracting.
NEWSIES is supposedly based on the Newsboys Strike of 1899. Tammany Hall controlled New York, and the likes of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst ruled the newspapers. Those papers were sold on the streets by boys called “newsies”, who bought the papers from the publisher to resell, keeping the profit. Newsies had to eat the cost of any “paps” they failed to sell. They were homeless.
NEWSIES gets the story of these kids a little differently. They live in a home provided by the paper, and – with the exception of Crutchie, who has a bum leg – these Disney newsies look like what they are, buff chorus boys in their 20s, wearing clothes that look as if they get dry-cleaned weekly.
That is, they and the show look plastic.
But they’re supposed to be starving, so when Pulitzer ups the cost they pay to buy his paps, they protest, which turns into a strike, which results in a union that by the end of the show extends to every corner of New York where child-labor had existed, setting the world right at last, as only a Disney show can do.
The cause of the girls’ shrieks, or so I assume, is the sight of all those buff guys, several of whom opt to walk around with their shirts off, the better to foster more shrieking.
A subplot added by adaptor Harvey Firestein has the head newsie, Jack (Jeremy Jordon) getting romantic with – wait for it – Joe Pulitzer’s daughter, Katherine, (Kara Lindsay). Katherine is a product of wealth, smart, educated, classy; while Jack’s an overage street kid, not smart, not educated, for sure not classy, but cute as hell.
Katherine is cute as hell, too, and gets in touch with her common woman by raising her skirts repeatedly while dancing, the better to let us see her bloomers, if you’re into bloomers.
If you buy any of this, I have a wonderful bridge I’d like you to test drive.
Jeremy Jordon was cute as hell in BONNIE AND CLYDE, too, even if you couldn’t see him as a killer. This time, you can’t see him as a partner for Katherine, cute as hell or not. Mr. Jordon is also a talented guy who’s destined to go far, but I wasn’t so sure about Ms. Lindsay, she of the screechy voice and perpetual lovely smile. I kept thinking somebody should give her a good smack.
Alan Menken’s music is fine, as always, but well short of memorable. Jack Feldman’s lyrics followed the movie in having Jack sing of his dream of going to Santa Fe, which is described as being a green paradise. This will surprise anyone who’s actually been to Santa Fe, but to dwell on that would be churlish.
Jeff Calhoun directs the show competently, and choreographer Christopher Gattelli does a great job of having the newsies – did I mention they’re all really good hoofers? – show they’re shriek-worthy with a series of muscular dances and acrobatic moves that were effective at first, but after a while felt like reruns.
Aside from the dry-cleaned look, the costumes by Jess Goldstein looked fine, and Tobin Ost’s set is purely fab.
In reading over what I’ve written, it strikes me I’m making NEWSIES sound like a loser of a musical. I suspect that’s very far from what it’s going to be. I think it will succeed, possibly sensationally, but I didn’t think it was great.
I hasten to say this because I was the only critic other than Howard Shapiro of the Philadelphia Inquirer (I sent him chocolates) who didn’t succumb to ONCE, another show that seems destined to do great business despite my feelings about it.
If Disney wants to make their shows plastic, it’s okay with me, but I think they should stick to subjects that are fantasies to begin with, rather than trying to make a fantasy out of child labor.
Rating (5 stars possible): **½
The bottom line: Standard Disney fare, with some good dancing
Who should go? Families
Do I recommend it? For families