You probably don’t remember the Disney 1992 musical film, Newsies, a box-office flop starring a teenaged Christian Bale (that’s right, Batman). The twenty year-old film was all but forgotten outside of its cult following until last year when it was adapted into a stage show and performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse in NJ. Despite the film’s lack of success, the stage show was a hit. One year later, Newsies is now a full-fledged Broadway musical.
I had the privilege of seeing the show recently at the Nederlander Theatre on W. 41st St in New York City, and I can say, without hesitation, that it owns up to the Tony Awards it received for Best Choreography and Best Original Score. Newsies was also nominated for Tony Awards in Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, Best Orchestrations, and Best Scenic Designs.
Newsies is based, very loosely, on the Newsboys Strike of 1899 in New York City. Protagonist Jack Kelly is one of thousands of orphaned newsboys, or “newsies”, living in lodging homes and earning meager wages peddling “papes” to New York’s citizens. Jack is essentially the leader of the boys in his home, and they all look to him as a leader of sorts. Davey Jacobs and his little brother Les are two boys who leave school temporarily to help their family get by because their father got laid off due to lack of support from a workers union. During a news slump, Joseph Pulitzer of The New York World, the paper sold by Jack and his gang, ups the cost of papers for the newsies. Davey’s situation gives Jack the idea to form a newsboy union, and they go on strike to try and win fair treatment for the boys employed by papers all over the city. A female reporter for another paper, Katherine Plumber, follows the newsies’ story and quickly becomes a love interest for Jack.
The part of Jack Kelly is played by Corey Cott, a newcomer to Broadway. He was the understudy to the original lead, Jeremy Jordan, stepping up to fill the role when Jordan left the show due to commitments on NBC’s Smash. Cott does a phenomenal job of putting on a gritty New Yorker accent and packing all the charisma that street-smart Jack Kelly should have. Cott’s vocal performance isn’t anything impressive, however, and he is really overshadowed vocally by his childhood friend Ben Fankhauser, also new to Broadway.
Fankhauser’s character, Davey, is introduced as a goody two-shoes who seems to be Jack’s opposite, but the characters quickly become allies, paralleling the real-life friendship of the two actors. “Ben Fankhauser and I grew up together in Ohio,” Cott said in an interview with TheaterMania. “I remember 10th grade, we were hanging out and joked that we’d be on Broadway together one day.” Fankhauser has a gorgeous voice, and really shines in the opening lines to “Once and For All” towards the end of the show.
Despite the great lead performances, the actor who really steals the show is little Nicholas Lampiasi, making his Broadway debut as Davey’s younger brother Les. The pint-sized redhead wins the hearts of the audience with his wide-eyed, freckled mug, and then cracks them up when he talks smack and mirrors Jack Kelly’s tough-guy persona. More strong support comes from Kara Lindsay, portraying Katherine Plumber, but support is all she really seems to be capable of. During Lindsay’s solo vocals her voice just doesn’t sit well with the audience. I asked several people after the show about it to see if I was, perhaps, the only one bothered. They all agreed that Lindsay’s voice pierces the eardrums, distracting from the romance that is supposed to be brewing between Katherine and Jack.
What makes Newsies so entertaining on Broadway is not the individual performances; it’s the titular newsie ensemble itself that carries the entire performance on its shoulders. There’s a reason Newsies won the Tony for Best Choreography: the dancers in the ensemble pull off some tightly rehearsed, thoroughly impressive routines. The newsies dance with and around piles of the papers they’re peddling. There’s a wacky tap number, and Ryan Steele (Specs) leaves the females in the audience screaming for more when he pulls off some head-spinning pirouettes. The synchronicity and energy had the audience stopping the show with applause on multiple occasions. Even the lovable Crutchie, the crippled newsie version of Tiny Tim played by Andrew Keenan-Bolger, pulls off a few great tricks with his crutch, artfully incorporating a limp into his dance moves.
As I mentioned, the show also won Best Original Score, and by far the best pieces in Newsies are sung by the newsies, themselves. The ensemble is made up of twenty-odd powerful male voices, and every tune from the opening “Carrying the Banner” to the triumphant “Brooklyn’s Here” is like a melodious battle cry that resonates throughout the small Nederlander Theatre. Newsies is certainly worthy of the front-page, and with a currently open-ended engagement, could be making headlines for a long while.