NEW YORK — There are lots of musicals that inspire and stimulate. Only one makes you want to rush outside to buy a newspaper, join a union and hug someone from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Such is the effect after the relentlessly cheery "Newsies," a musical based on a film of the same name, which opened Thursday at the Nederlander Theatre with heart, soul and a lot of vests, caps and too-thick Noo Yawk accents.
The musical is based on the 1899 true story of child newspaper sellers, or newsies, in turn-of-the-century New York who go on strike when the price of "papes" – sorry, newspapers – goes up unfairly. They must battle scabs, crooked officials, business types like Joseph Pulitzer and fearsome strike breakers carrying metal pipes. It's like the film "Gangs of New York" but with dancing.
The 1992 film "Newsies," starring Christian Bale, Bill Pullman, Robert Duvall and Ann-Margret, did poorly at the box office, but it has become something of a cult hit. Disney Theatrical Productions has offered it a second life.
Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman, who were responsible for the film's score, teamed up again to transform "Newsies" into a musical for the stage, reworking the songs and collaborating with a new story writer, Harvey Fierstein, known for his work in "Hairspray" and "La Cage aux Folles." Director Jeff Calhoun allows no moment to tire, keeping a fast pace and winningly using every inch of the stage.
The new musical retains the memorable songs "Santa Fe," "The World Will Know," "Carrying the Banner," "Seize the Day" and "King of New York" but adds a young female reporter to the story. The old songs are still the best and make many reprises, but the journalist Katherine (a spunky Kara Lindsay) is a welcome addition.
Fierstein has nicely built into the plucky David-versus-Goliath story a romance – something the film didn't really have – between Jack (the charismatic Jeremy Jordan), the leader of the strikers, and Katherine, a reporter with a hidden past who is desperate to leave fluffy features and cover hard news.
The overall story, like newsprint, is black and white. The scruffy newsies, most orphans and destitute (though some look in their late 20s), are all good. The businessmen and politicians, with the exception of a very good Teddy Roosevelt, are pure evil. The little guys work in terrible, unsafe conditions that cry out for unionization. Credit the massive conglomerate Disney for cheering the victims of capitalism.
Clear Fierstein touches are welcome, but scant and slightly predictable – glimmers of his more feisty side come out in veiled sex jokes – and the way Jack woos Katherine by drawing her seems lifted from "Titanic." The book may have some anachronisms and cliches – "keep your shirt on," indeed – but Katherine is a worthy foil to Jack, and its heart is definitely in the right place.
Go, little working guys! Stick it to The Man!
"All we ask is a square deal," says Jack at one rousing newsies' meeting. "For the sake of all the kids in every sweatshop, factory and slaughterhouse in this town, I beg you, throw down your papers and join the strike."
Besides Jordan and Lindsay, other standouts include Andrew Keenan-Bolger as the endearing disabled kid Crutchie – newsies apparently tend to be quite literal when it comes to nicknames – and Matthew Schechter, who's alternating the role of Les with Lewis Grosso and as the youngest up there has better comic timing and style than actors twice his age.
The cast also apparently has spent a lot of time mimicking Fierstein's accent, making it as thick as a pastrami sandwich from Katz's Delicatessen. "First" becomes "foist," "brother" is "bruddar," "birds" are "boids," etc. Someone should have hired Professor Higgins from "My Fair Lady" for some dialect advice.
More than two dozen newsies, many veterans of the TV dance competition "So You Think You Can Dance," are put through their paces by choreographer Christopher Gattelli, who thrillingly combines ballet with bold athletic moves. In one sequence, the performers dance on newspapers, a neat trick that takes advantage of paper's inherent slick qualities. Try that with an iPad.
Calhoun, whose last job was directing "Bonnie & Clyde," has smartly brought along from that short-lived musical his Clyde (Jordan, whose looks and voice and intensity will melt many a heart) as well as Tobin Ost, the set designer. Here, Ost has created three massive rolling steel towers that get a workout as they twist and turn to resemble various cityscapes, often nicely paired with Sven Ortel's projections.
"Newsies" will likely now go from Broadway to high school auditoriums across the country. Part history lesson, part fable and part love story, it's practically got its bags packed. Hopefully, by making newsies heroic, it'll also revive the business of "papes" – sorry, newspapers.