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Newsboys of The World Unite (The Journal, Too)

Harvey Fierstein Adapts 1992 “Newsies” into Disney musical at Paper Mill

BY ANDY HUMM | Disney has come up with the timeliest show on the boards this season in “Newsies” –– and a smashing entertainment to boot. Read all about it.

Down on Wall Street this past week, an occupation led mostly by young people was, at last, a tangible sign of rebellious resistance to the injustices of an insane financial system that threatens to bring the world economy to its knees. Back in 1899, the conflict was simpler in economic terms but no less inspiring –– newsboys, who were mostly poor kids, striking against colluding publishers Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal, who jacked up the price of their papers to these “distributors” a tenth of a cent, taking away 20 percent of their profits. That squeeze on the boys’ pockets led them to collective action to protect their already meager livelihoods.

Disney made this turn-of-the-last century story into the musical film “Newsies,” a failure at the box office in 1992 that starred Christian Bale as Jack “Cowboy” Kelly, leader of the newsboys. The film enjoyed a decent afterlife as a DVD, and there have been steady requests from professional and amateur theater groups to make it a stage show. Now the Mouse has turned it into a “new” musical –– not opening on Broadway, but at the venerable Paper Mill Playhouse, only 45 minutes from Broadway on New Jersey Transit.

There’s tons of Tony-winning talent on hand. Alan Menken, the king of Disney musicals, and Jack Feldman have expanded their lively music and lyrics respectively. And Harvey Fierstein has written a new book that makes the story work better than it did in the film, adding a central romance for Jack with Katherine Plummer, a rare woman reporter who chances upon the story of the boys’ strike.

Jeremy Jordan, recently Tony in “West Side Story” on Broadway, is a sensation as Jack Kelly, giving him not just the charisma but the complexity he needs to make this a compelling show. (It’s all the more remarkable because Jordan has been rehearsing during the day as Clyde Barrow in the new musical of “Bonnie and Clyde,” directed, as is “Newsies,” by Jeff Calhoun.) Sara Lindsay, engaging as Plummer, struggles with both elf-doubt and the desire to break out in this pre-feminist era.

Yes, there are hissable villains. John Dossett’s Pulitzer will make journalists think twice about wanting the prize named for him. And Stuart Markland brings depth to Snyder, the corrupt operator of a home for boys from which Kelly escaped –– in the back of Governor Teddy Roosevelt’s (Kevin Carolan) car, no less. When cops arrive on the scene of the striking boys being beaten by goons, one of the kids shouts, “It’s about time you got here. They’re slaughtering us!” –– only to get beaten more by the police.

This is not Disney adapted from one of their cartoon musicals. There are no flying nannies or talking teapots. These are real kids articulating the kind of anger at economic injustice that today’s Americans can’t seem to grasp and channel into campaigns for fairness. When the boys sing and dance their way through “Seize the Day,” a pulsing paean to union solidarity and action, there were no walkouts from the suburban crowd mixed with reverse commuters from the city. Maybe there is hope.

Calhoun directs with drive and Christopher Gattelli’s choreography brings out the masculine athleticism of the boys in numbers that rival the best of “Anything Goes.” The scenic design by Tobin Ost keeps us mostly in a gray New York of the underclass, but the boys take common objects –– including stacks of newspapers –– to fashion some thrilling dances.

Some will call this the male “Annie.” There are also echoes of Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby,” especially with the struggling Crutchie (Andrew Keenan-Bolger in a touching turn) and the urchin Les (a winning Vincent Agnello at evening performances). It’s about time the social concerns Dickens gave voice to 150 years ago were given new creative life.

No news yet on what’s next for this terrific show or whether it is headed for Broadway. But it is just what America needs for its soul and its stages right now –– and given its mostly young cast, “Newsies” will likely infiltrate high schools and colleges from coast to coast.

Walt Disney –– no friend of unions –– may be turning over in his grave, but his heirs have come up with something stirring, worthy, and great fun.


Essentials:

NEWSIES

Paper Mill Playhouse

22 Brookside Drive

Millburn, New Jersey

Through Oct. 16

Wed.-Sun. at 7 p.m.

Thu., Sat., Sun. at 1:30 pm

$25-96; papermill.org

Or 973-376-4343

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