Newsies should not be a very good show. The 1992 Disney movie of the same name that serves as the source material (starring a young Christian Bale) is a cult classic in the Disney fandom, but wasn't quite as successful as their other musicals from the same era (e.g. The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast). Still, the folks over at Disney's theatrical branch decided to make Newsies into a stage musical, which was originally intended to be licensed out and performed by regional theaters.
And then the “fansies,” as fans of the show are called, came along and seized the day, so to speak. Newsies premiered at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2011, and was so ecstatically received that the producers scrabbled together an inexpensive Broadway run, which was only intended to be for a few months. It was a good idea for a few reasons — saying a show played on Broadway makes it easier to license, and getting a few Tony nominations along the way certainly doesn't hurt either. And of course, there's always the added bonus of the potential to make good money off of Broadway's over-inflated ticket prices. So this underdog of a show ran for a bit over two years and recouped its $5 million capitalization cost in seven months, making it the fastest Disney show to turn a profit.
So what made Newsies, now in a touring production at the Pantages, into the little musical that could? It wasn't just the Disney name, as they've had higher-profile movies flop as musicals, like The Little Mermaid. And it's certainly not the script. Harvey Fierstein's book, which tells the story of the newsboy strike of 1899, is a mess, filled with cheap self-awareness, cliches, groan-worthy jokes, and anesthetized villainy.
The acting in this L.A. production now is all fine, though not particularly inspired — both Dan DeLuca's Jack Kelly and Jacob Kemp's Davey are eerie carbon copies of their Broadway predecessors. But the score, by Alan Menken (Disney's go-to composer in the '90s) and Jack Feldman (who wrote Barry Manilow's “Copacabana”) is plenty charming, if repetitive, and a nice reminder of how good Menken's songs can be when he's paired with the right lyricist.
Though it wasn't planned this way, the timing of Newsies' arrival in L.A. is incongruous — the cast is comprised of union actors playing characters who wholeheartedly extoll the virtues of being in a union, at the very moment that L.A.'s stage actors are uniting to protest how their union is trying to end L.A.'s 99-seat theater plan, which allows them to perform for below minimum wage.
Where Newsies really shines is in the dancing. Under choreographer Christopher Gattelli, Newsies has the best band of dancing tramps this side of West Side Story, and the ensemble defies gravity regularly, flying across the stage with glee. They're aggressively charming, and sure to uplift even the dourest of dispositions.
The cast is easy on the eyes, too, which surely contributes to the fanaticism of its young, very vocal fan base. Listening to those fans have a great time is almost as amusing as the show itself.
Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; through Apr 19. (800) 982-2787, hollywoodpantages.com.
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