|Jeremy Jordan (centre-top) and company in Newsies (Photo by Deen van Meer)|
The latest Broadway hit musical from Disney is Newsies, which transfers the 1992 movie musical to the stage of the Nederlander, and the news is mostly pretty good. Kenny Ortega’s 1992 picture has a juicy plot premise: the 1899 strike of newsboys (“newsies”) peddling The New York Herald, after its publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, opts to elevate his profits by raising the price of the paper – but only to the newsies, not to the paying customers. (The newsies have to buy their papers, or “papes,” outright, and eat the cost of any copies that are left at the end of the day.) The movie has considerable period personality – the story begins in the third week of a trolley workers’ strike and contains a memorable image of a blazing trolley shooting down a Manhattan street – and Ortega and his co-choreographer, Peggy Holmes, picked a fine model, Carol Reed’s 1968 Oliver!, one of the best film musicals ever made. Newsies isn’t at the level of Oliver!, but it’s great fun, with rousing anthems by Alan Mencken (music) and Jack Friedman (lyrics), wonderful high-stepping dances, and tough, nimble-witted newsboys (led by a young Christian Bale, just five years after Empire of the Sun, as the charismatic Jack Kelly and David Moscow as David, the brains of the gang) with plenty of attitude and thick, stylized New York accents that make them sound like the Dead End Kids. The Bob Tzudiker-Noni White screenplay is crowded with incident; the movie is a very speedy two-hour ride.
|Photo by Deen van Meer|
The show doesn’t have as much personality as one hopes for. (Fierstein should have been more careful about the dialogue; it contains too many anachronistic clichés like “You can do this” and “What’s this about for you?”) Yet there’s enough left over from the source to keep it going, and the dancing is even better than in the film. At their best Feldman’s lyrics are quite clever: “Pulitzer may own The World / But he don’t own us.” And there’s one way in which the play improves on the movie. Instead of Ann-Margret, miscast and trying too hard as the vaudeville tootsie Medda, the show supplies Capathia Jenkins, an outsize African American performer with a warm voice and a killer smile for whom Jess Goldstein has designed a couple of eye-popping gowns. (She makes her entrance in magenta and lavender.) Ortega wisely cut away from Ann-Margret’s numbers, but there’s no need to downplay Jenkins’s; I wish Mencken and Feldman had given her more than one (and a better one than “It’s Rich.”) Moreover, the notion of a musical set in the heyday of print media is even more nostalgic than it was twenty years ago. The image of overworked, underpaid newsboys – Dickens waifs newly minted as Yankee juveniles – bringing the news to the world (one of the catchiest chorus numbers is called “The World Will Know”) as America soars into the twentieth century has an inescapable touch of sadness for us now.
I decided to check out the new musical Dogfight, playing at the 2econd Stage Theatre, because Gattelli’s name is on it too, and after Newsies (not to mention Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, 13 and the brilliant Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific) I was eager to see more of his work. The fact is that Dogfight contains almost no choreography, though I liked the little I saw, most of it in a second-act soldiers’ march. But it’s a lovely little musical and I was delighted I’d wandered in.
Peter Duchan’s book is based on the 1991 Nancy Savoca movie, which starred River Phoenix as Eddie, a Marine about to leave for Vietnam in the early days of the war (the setting is San Francisco in 1963) and Lili Taylor as Rose, the coffee-shop waitress he picks up and invites to a party. What Rose doesn’t know is that Eddie and his buddies have rented out a club for the night to stage a “dogfight”: the ugliest girl wins prize money for the guy who brought her. When one of the other Marines hires a whore to be his date, promising her to split the booty with her, and then tries to chisel her out of her fair share, Rose overhears their altercation, learns the truth, and walks out on Eddie, hurt and astonished at his cruelty. Genuinely remorseful, he begs her forgiveness and asks her out on a real date, a dinner at a fancy restaurant that he can ill afford. (He can pay for her meal but not for one of his own, so he settles for a beer. When he admits why, she splits her food with him.) They end up spending the night together, and before he ships out she writes her address on a piece of paper and asks him to write her. But when he rejoins his pals he gets caught up once again in their macho jocularity and tears up the paper. The coda takes place three years later, when – sporting a leg wound and having lost his closest friends at war – he returns to San Francisco and shows up at the café, which Rose now runs.
|River Phoenix and Lili Taylor in the 1991 film|
Duchan lifts most of the dialogue from the Bob Comfort screenplay (which is sometimes a problem, as in the unconvincing scene where Eddie and Rose are initially denied a table at the restaurant of their choice), but he gives it a much clearer dramatic shape. He uses Eddie’s return to San Francisco by bus after getting out of the service as a frame, so we see the events of that night through his memories and it’s obvious that he’s working through his own mixed emotions and recognizing how and why he acted as badly as he did. Duchan and the songwriters, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, make a much bigger deal out of the issue of Marine machismo; Derek Klena, who gives a fine performance, is very specific about the moments when Eddie is pulling against it and the moments when it sucks him in. His return to Rose (Lindsay Mendez, equally good) is triggered by an incident at the top of the second act where he and his buddy Boland (Josh Segarra) take the third in their triumvirate, Bernstein (Nick Blaemire), to a prostitute so he can lose his virginity before going into active duty. But the woman (Dierdre Friel) is exhausted after a long night of servicing johns and tells them to get lost, and Bernstein turns his deep disappointment at being cheated out of this test of manhood into anger and begins to strong-arm her; only Eddie’s interference keeps him from raping her. This sequence is tied to the second-act opening song, “Heroes’ Ticker Tape Parade,” about the rewards the young men have been taught are due to the defenders of their country. The song – and the scene – may be a bit assertive but they make sense out of Eddie’s character. (And the unkind homecoming Eddie receives plays ironically against them.)
|Nick Blaemire, Derek Klena & Josh Segarra (Photo by Joan Marcus)|
Dogfight has an ensemble of eleven and every one of them deserves to be commended. (The ones I haven’t mentioned are Becca Ayers, Steven Booth, Adam Halpin, F. Michael Haynie and, as a Jerry Lee Lewis-like lounge singer, James Moye.) So do the director, Joe Mantello, who has staged it with simple effectiveness, and the designers, David Zinn (sets and costumes) and Paul Gallo (lighting). I’m not sure what kind of attention the musical has been getting, beyond the fact that Charles Isherwood underrated it in The New York Times, but it should have a life in regional theater. (It also cries out for an original cast recording.) Keep an eye out.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.