Newsies

Rating:

EXTRA! EXTRA! HEY, LOOK AT THE HEADLINES

Main Cast: Christian Bale, Bill Pullman

Director: Kenny Ortega

cocktails PD

Either Angela needs fewer of these, or I need more.

Angela Arden, that alcoholic has been, will be the death of me.  She keeps screeching backstage about the sharp reductions in her part as Madame Rose in this little production of Gypsy in which I am playing the title role.  She doesn’t seem to understand that when a star of the magnitude of Vicki Lester is on the bill, the show must be tailored to fit my fabulous talents as that’s what my adoring public expects.  If she doesn’t stop whining, I’m going to have the director take her out of the Mr. Goldstone number completely leaving her without much to do in the first act.  Miss Julie, my script doctor, has done a wonderful job at restructuring the show to focus more on my character by getting rid of those pesky children, allowing me to begin the story with Gypsy as a youthful twenty something who manages to become the queen of burlesque through her amazing fashion sense and her incredible tap skills.   My tap solo to Little Lamb must be seen to be believed as I buck and wing with a whole back up chorus of stuffed animals.

We’ve only got another week until we go into previews for the discerning audiences of Pacoima and I despair of the technical end being ready.  The set was way behind so I suggested we simply use one of the many I have in storage rather than trying to construct from scratch.  We’re using the house from Sunset Boulevard for Act I and the fairgrounds set from Carousel for Act II which should show me off in my lovely gowns that Mary Gee and Kim Dee are busy whipping up for me.  We had some leftover Native American fabrics from my recent trip to Arizona which are giving everything a warm earth tone feeling which contrasts nicely with the Day-Glo paint we’re using on the sets.  It’s going to be stunning under the black lights.   I’m having Mary and Kim do some alterations to Angela’s costumes as well.  We can’t have her outshining the star.  Burlap should do nicely.

During our dinner break, I was planning on eating the divine little tuna and endive salad I had placed in the green room refrigerator but someone else had swiped it.  I’m betting it was that pesky Angela.  I had to settle for a kiwi Yoplait a few days past its expiration date and a bottle of Fresca.  I then got out my portable DVD player to enjoy a film.  We had been working on the newsboy number earlier in the day.  In our version, the newsboys back up me as grownup Louise as there’s really no need for her to have a more talented and prettier sister.  The number hasn’t quite gelled so I thought it might be worthwhile to visit a musical all about newsboys to see what I might be missing in terms of our little presentation.  There’s only one of those around, Disney’s 1992 all singing all dancing Newsies starring a young Christian Bale as a kid willing to take on the titans of yellow journalism in turn of the last century New York.  I had missed this film on its initial release and somehow never seemed to have caught up with it on late night cable or DVD so I decided to give it a whirl.

The year is 1899.  In an impossibly clean New York square dominated by a statue of Horace Greeley straight out of Main Street USA, we meet a bunch of lovable young urchins who, despite being penniless, have had orthodontia, veneers and money for a wash and set and oodles of hair care products.  They are the titular newsies who hawk the papers to the public on the streets of New York to earn a few cents for themselves and their families. In a wham bang opening number, they tumble out of bed, perform acrobatic tricks down the street, and end up with a little ballet in the square.  Leading them is Jack Kelly (Bale) who has a best pal Crutchy (Marty Belafsky), so named for his crippled leg and crutch. They are joined by siblings David (David Moscow) and kid brother Les (Luke Edwards) who are new to the newsie beat, having to earn some money to help the family.  When Joseph Pulitzer (Robert Duvall), the publisher, decides to raise the price for their papers without consulting them, the newsboys, taking a page out of the progressive era happening all around them and call a strike.  With the aid of a sympathetic reporter (Bill Pullman) and a Bowery vaudevillian (Ann-Margaret), the kids band together to take on the city’s power brokers.  Will they succeed?  If you don’t know the answer to that question, you’ve obviously never seen a Disney film.

There’s much to like in Newsies and much that just doesn’t work.  Its biggest issue is that the disparate elements simply don’t all add up.  Kenny Ortega’s direction and choreography are pure 80s music video.  (At times, one almost expects Michael Jackson to show up whipping his hair) The visual look, however, hearkens back to the wholesome musicals Disney was putting out in the 50s and 60s with Haley Mills and the young Kurt Russell.  The turn of the century sets and costumes are all so squeaky clean and wholesome that I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if the Dapper Dans put in a cameo.  There’s also some odd miscasting.  No one in their right mind would believe that a lot of adolescent boys would idolize a pretty but menopausal Ann-Margaret, no matter how tight her corset.  Many years later, Disney solved many of these problems when adapting the piece for the stage – a more conceptual setting got rid of the Americana and a thankless love interest in the movie (Deborra-Lee Furness) as David and Les’s sister, was transformed into a spunky female reporter with a significant backstory.

Alan Menken and Jack Feldman’s song score is pleasant, full of anthems for young male choral voices but most of the songs aren’t especially memorable.  The one exception is a ballad for young Jack (Santa Fe) in which he dreams of heading out west and making his own life, away from the tenement life of lower Manhattan.  Christian Bale, who doesn’t have the world’s strongest singing voice, delivers a song full of longing, hope and ultimately resignation to the way things are.  Bale started off strong as a child actor (Empire of the Sun) and has continued through the years to bring a quiet intensity to any number of roles including Patrick Bateman in American Psycho and Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight trilogy.  Here, at 20 playing 17 or so, he carries the weight of plot and theme on his young shoulders and for the most part, he’s eminently watchable. There’s an over the top action sequence or two where he seems a tad uncomfortable with what he’s asked to do but he gives it the old college try.

Most of the young supporting cast are having a great time.  I can’t say that an hour after Newsies, I could remember any of them or distinguish one from the other.  The adults are, for the most part, playing stereotypes rather than characters.  Robert Duvall, as the villain, has the most to do, but doesn’t always seem to be very comfortable with some of the hackneyed dialog he gets to deliver.  Ann-Margaret is always fun on film, but seems to recognize that she’s in the wrong movie as Medda Larkin, the Swedish Nightingale (some sort of odd nod to Jenny Lind as no one could ever imagine Ann-Margaret singing classical rep).   Michael Lerner gets in a couple of good moments as the rusty old guy from whom the newsies get their papers.

Ultimately, Newsies is perfectly enjoyable, has a lot of nubile young dancer eye candy, a couple of nice songs and teaches some simplistic moral lessons about the power of community.  There are worse things you could show your children.

Statue sleeping.  Wet undershorts. Gratuitous tour jetes. Newspaper throwing. Underground newspaper printing. Trolley strike.  Rooftop romance. Marching children. Overturned wagon.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester

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