New York City Theater
When in doubt, dance. When in pain, sing. For two new, film-based Broadway musicals, defeat is staved off by getting those feet tapping, those lungs exercised.
Disney’s “Newsies” takes a provocative topic, the 1899 newspaper strike by delivery boys against powerful publisher Joseph Pulitzer, and turns it into safe, dance-heavy, breathless family entertainment.
“Once,” on the other hand, pauses for moments suffused with grace. As authentic as a pint of Guinness, it uses music to plumb the feelings of its characters. This lovely and touching Irish tale about a lonely street singer named Guy and the woman named Girl who drags him out of his misery is set in a Dublin pub. Theatergoers can go onstage to imbibe before the show and during intermission.
There they’ll be serenaded in true céilí (hoedown) fashion by the cast, all of whom play instruments ranging from guitar, banjo, violin and accordion to melodica and cajon. The cast is also the show’s band, supporting the story of Guy, a sad young man whose lover has moved from Dublin to New York. Depressed and distressed, Guy is brought out of his misery by Girl, an assertive Czech woman, deserted by her husband yet embraced by an extended family.
Convincing Guy that his original music is worthy, Girl, a pianist, gets him to team up with instrumentalists of varying ethnicities and desires to cut a record. This they do in one boozy, woozy night of soul-saving commonality.
Librettist Enda Walsh’s musical isn’t much more than that, but it’s told with tenderness, love, humor and a warming heart. Aside from the Oscar-winning song, “Falling Slowly,” the score by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová is soaked in atmosphere. Nothing feels imposed or out of place.
With movement by Steven Hoggett and direction by John Tiffany (the team behind the marvelous “Black Watch”), the musical stars a sparkling cast, headed by Steve Kazee as Guy and Anne L. Nathan as Girl. When she tells him, “You’re wasting your life because you’re frightened of it,” you root for them to seize the day.
Coincidentally, one of the major numbers in “Newsies” is “Seize the Day.” Like “Once,” the Disney enterprise concerns an eager young woman who pushes a needy young man in the right direction.
The guy in this case is the personable Jack Kelly, a tough 17-year-old Manhattan street kid who yearns, in typical American fashion, for the supposedly simpler Western skies of Santa Fe. (“Let me go far away, somewhere they won’t never find me and tomorrow won’t remind me of today.”) The girl is a reporter mysteriously involved on both sides, labor and management, of the cause.
A born organizer, Jack gets his fellow newsies to stop hawking papers when publishers raise their rates, cutting into money earned. This sets him and his “ragtag gang of ragamuffins” up against the villainous Pulitzer who “may own the World but he don’t own us.” Who “wins”? Don’t ask.
A combination of “Oliver,” “Annie,” “West Side Story” and strike plays from the Great Depression, the show barely hints at the political and sociological reasons for forming unions. But, then, Harvey Fierstein’s surprisingly unfunny and timid book even stoops to explaining that “the world is yer erster” refers to a certain bivalve.
The evening’s benefits include driving music by composer Alan Menken and vernacular lyrics by Jack Feldman. Jeff Calhoun directs with an eye on not letting space get between numbers. The main asset, though, aside from Jordan, is Christopher Gattelli’s athletic choreography. Tourists will be pumped up.
David A. Rosenberg
April 12, 2012