Originally reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:
As far as live-action musicals go, Disney’s 1992 film Newsies was a commercial failure.
The film, which was released in the UK as The News Boys, applied the song and dance treatment to a unique period of industrial unrest: the 1899 Newsboys’ Strike in New York, where the underage sellers of the city’s newspapers protested about a 20% rise in the price they were charged for the bundles of papers they would purchase at the start of each day.
The film marked the directorial debut of Kenny Ortega, a man who is now better known for reviving the Disney live action musical tradition with the High School Musical franchise than he is for his part in the movie which had previously contributed to its demise.
But the musical itself gained a much bigger life after a substantial reworking into a Broadway musical. Choreography from Christopher Gattelli and a substantially reworked book by Harvey Fierstein led to an acclaimed Broadway show that would garner it two Tony Awards and nominations in a further six categories.
Although the musical has yet to transfer to the West End, its reputation has crossed the pond – and is followed now by the cinematic release of a specially filmed production, staged and recorded in Los Angeles in 2016.
Several of the Broadway original cast members return to the stage, led by Jeremy Jordan, who had been Tony nominated for his role as paperboy leader Jack Kelly, and Kara Lindsay as ambitious cub reporter Katherine Plumber.
Other cast members include some other Broadway alumni, including Ben Fankhauser and Andrew Keenan-Bolger as fellow newsies Davey and Crutchie, with other roles performed by actors from the US national touring company.
With a set that relies on three tall towers of iconic walkways and fire escapes that just reek of Manhattan and plenty of formation choreography, one can’t help but be reminded of Jerome Robbins’ work for West Side Story in places.
Here, though, the divisions are money-based rather than racial, as Katherine finds herself attracted to the handsome Jack (this is the point where it’s perhaps safest not to wonder what age Jordan’s character is supposed to be).
Much as Jordan and Lindsay are able to rekindle their onstage chemistry, though, it is Lindsay’s work with the massed Newsies in the rambunctious tap routines during ‘King of New York’ that provide the show both its standout musical number and its most joyous dancing.
Indeed, while there is a fair amount of romantic yearning between Jack and Katherine, it is the bond of brothers that is the far stronger in Newsies.
Whether it is the ‘family’ of children who work together, or the brotherhood of the union that they end up forming to try and stand up to the press barons who profit from their exploitation, theirs are the relationships that are the greatest and strongest on show here.
That is reflected in the cast make-up, with the vast majority of roles going to men (apart from Lindsay, Aisha de Haas’ music hall owner Medda Larkin is the only other female solo singing role).
Alan Menken’s glorious score (with lyrics by Jack Feldman) remains one of his strongest, and with a filming set-up that allows the camera to jump in amongst the ensemble and climb the fire escapes with them, Gattelli’s choreography has never looked better.
When the finale ends and the filmed audience rise to their feet to deliver a standing ovation, even in the darkness of a London cinema it is very tempting to join with them, in recognition of a masterful visual record of a superb musical.