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After Duds, Disney Takes Flight With ‘Newsies’: Review

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"Newsies: The Musical"
The company of "Newsies: The Musical" in New York. The Broadway production stars Jeremy Jordan and is directed by Jeff Calhoun. Photographer: Deen van Meer/Disney Theatricals via Bloomberg

March 31 (Bloomberg) -- If you’ve had it with choreography as inspired as a workout at the gym, “Newsies: The Musical” is your show.

The balletic airborne dancing provides reason enough to see the rough boys who hawked newspapers on New York street corners at the turn of the last century.

After the disastrous “Little Mermaid” and “Tarzan,” this new musical by Harvey Fierstein, Alan Menken and Jack Feldman represents Disney’s return to crowd-pleasing form.

The blessedly retro choreographer Christopher Gattelli and a youthful company that beggars gravity with soaring leaps punctuated by occasional back flips, capture the poetic aspirations of an underclass whose dreams are typically ground in the pavement like so many cigarette butts. You may be reminded of the breathtaking moves Jerome Robbins gave the Jets and Sharks in “West Side Story.”

“Newsies” concerns the Davids-versus-Goliaths strike called by the boys. A consortium of moguls led by Joseph Pulitzer has attempted to squeeze even more money out of them by hiking the price for 100 papers to 60 cents, from 50.

That’s the core of the story and about as close to the facts as the Disney version goes. First presented as a film that flopped in 1992, the story has been rewritten by Fierstein under the assured direction of Tommy Tune-protege Jeff Calhoun.

Spunky Kids

The Newsies, led by Jeremy Jordan’s spunkily dese-dem-dose Jack Kelly, are inexhaustible. Like the happy, hungry pickpockets in “Oliver!” their tribulations fade in the hook of a catchy anthem, several of which have been provided by Menken (music) and Feldman (lyrics), augmenting their score for the film.

Jack gains entry into the inner sanctum of his nemesis Pulitzer (John Dossett), first in desperation and later in triumph. There’s also the leavening effect of a blossoming romance between Jack and a cheeky young reporter who writes under the byline Katherine Plummer. There’s even a madam with a heart of gold (the ebullient Capathia Jenkins) and enough rabble-rousing gatherings to populate several companies of “Les Miserables” and “Billy Elliot.”

Dancing Towers

All this takes place on a stage dominated by Sven Ortel’s superb grainy projections onto Tobin Ost’s three towers of steel girders that -- especially as lit with urban exactitude by Jeff Croiter -- can also dance and which help de-romanticize the feel-good goings on,.

The towers can go only so far. “Newsies” gets syrupy faster than I hoped for and while never less than assured, its efforts to earn applause can come mighty close to pandering.

Fierstein is a sentimentalist at heart, and the hokiness gets free reign.

The songs feel stamped from molds, the music predictable and the words banal. Jess Goldstein’s pretty costumes should be thrown into Times Square for a few hours of battering by traffic, preferably after a rain.

This is not “The Lion King,” as I wrote in my review of the show’s tryout last fall, and it’s not “Les Miz.” But that dancing lifts everything to a very high level.

Gattelli’s true model is choreographer Agnes DeMille, who loved working with male ensembles, the gruffer the better. She’d have rooted for these boys, too.

At the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St. Information: +1-866-870-2717; http://www.newsiesthemusical.com. Rating: ***


What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Good
*           So-So
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at jgerard2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeffrey Burke at jburke21@bloomberg.net.

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