There is something uniquely appealing, entertainment history reveals, about urban urchins in cloth caps, be they Parisian waifs, London pickpockets or unflaggingly optimistic New York orphans. If they sing and dance and have lost a parent or two, all the better. And if they sell newspapers for a living? Then they become fresher-faced and more empathetic versions of the archetypal ink-stained wretch, battered as these boys are between the mean streets and the selfish scoops of their mercurial bosses, obsessed, then and now, with their declining circulation.
How else to explain the way the excited audience at "Newsies," the latest and truly crowd-pleasing Broadway musical from Disney Theatrical Productions? They stopped the show with cheers on a whole slew of occasions, popping up from their seats, vicarious cloth caps firmly in place and ready to cheer like union organizers at some weird amalgam of Clifford Odets' "Waiting for Lefty" and "Annie." If you thought unions (or at least the romantic idea of them) were dead among the young, you should spend some time at the Nederlander Theatre, where the newsies are doing more to push the merits of collective bargaining to the youthful than Rich Trumka of theAFL-CIO. And they're doing so while working for Disney. No mean feat, that.
The crowd, the mostly young crowd, is certainly not reacting to an especially artful or innovative movie-to-stage adaptation. The characters aren't all as shameless as Crutchie (Andrew Keenan-Bolger, emoting like Tiny Tim's older brother), but they're a familiar collection of types, including the brooding hero Jack (the solid if unwavering Jeremy Jordan), the nerdy but self-actualizing Davey (Ben Fankhauser, who has more dimension than most) and the pint-sized Les (Lewis Grosso at the show I saw), spitting out the precocious one-liners.
One scene in Harvey Fierstein's book actually begins with the line, "And stay out." And, in the role of the female journalist (and somewhat uneasy love interest for Jack) named Katherine, the over-ripe and off-beat Kara Lindsay says something like, "You give me the exclusive, I'll run with the story and I'll get you the space," a trifecta of journalistic cliches.
Jeff Calhoun's production moves around Tobin Ost's metallic set mostly with efficiency, and John Dossett's villainous Joseph Pulitzer is a zesty creation, but there are no real surprises of any sort; in the formative sense, there's nothing one has not seen before. The number "Seize the Day" comes with top-drawer musical excitement, but this is not Alan Menken's best score for the theater, nor do Jack Feldman's lyrics dance easily in your head.
But for many in the theater, none of that matters. Once the fine ensemble of dancing newsies takes the stage and executes Christopher Gattelli's tricks-filled choreography, the rest of the pages of this enterprise seem to fall away. Such is the formidable burst of energy, fueled by what feels like the kind of authentic defiance that you often get when a show out starts small — or as a flop movie — and keeps on keeping on, playing to an ever-growing array of die-hard supporters (that flop has its fans). This is a very shrewdly produced show; expectations have been kept low but bubbling, and the absence of some Julie Taymor-like conceptual director feels, frankly, refreshing, given the fraught recent history of these things. The great asset of "Newsies," a show that should not be underestimated in its potential trajectory, is a demonstrable comfort in its own emotional skin and theatrical limitations. When you've got a target demographic wedded to their electronics in real life, an explicitly analog approach has real merits of contrast.
One wishes a bit more attention had been paid to the veracity of the central romance, a black hole in this show. Not that the ensemble of paperboys let themselves get sucked in. There is two-way magnetic passion in the room as these young guys dance on and around their newspapers (the real star of this show is an amazing dancer named Ryan Steele, who plays the role of Specs and who can stomp a series of pirouettes on Page One and then only get better from there). That may well be enough to keep this show in print for a good while.