Monday, July 23, 2012

Screen to Stage: Newsies and Dogfight

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.

Almost all of the changes to the Broadway version are comedowns, but the musical is still very pleasurable. Harvey Fierstein’s adaptation ups the ante on Jack (Jeremy Jordan): instead of being just a resourceful, charismatic rebel, he’s become a gifted artist as well. The result, oddly, is to make him less interesting. (And the play ages him by several years, so he loses the teen-hero appeal.) It doesn’t help that for the first part of act two the character retreats from the action for rather dim reasons and David – now called Davey and played by Ben Fankhauser – and his kid brother Les (played alternately by Lewis Grosso and Matthew J. Schechter) have to coax him back into the fray. Or that he’s given the dullest possible love interest, an eager novice reporter (Kara Lindsay, a mediocre singer with a perky, sanitized presence) who, in the script’s most clichéd twist, turns out to be Pulitzer’s daughter. Fierstein has created a composite of Jack’s romantic partner in the movie, David’s sister – a minor role – and the male journalist (Bill Pullman) who turns the boys into media stars and then, when every paper in town stops running their story by mutual agreement, stays on to counsel them in their fight against the greedy newspaper magnates. It also doesn’t help that instead of opening with an ebullient chorus number, as the movie did, the play starts up with the score’s big ballad, “Santa Fe,” sung by Jordan, dramatically a weak choice. (The same song closes act one, another bad idea.) Fierstein, Mencken and Friedman are hedging their bets here – and I’m sure they got more than a nudge from the Disney Corporation. The production is tailored to junior-high and high-school girls, and at the matinee I attended, they greeted Jordan as the heartthrob he’s evidently supposed to be. I found him adequate but he pushes that song for all it’s worth; if he understated it the musical performance would be better. Fankhauser has far more flavor as the skeptical egghead Davey.

Photo by Deen van Meer
The biggest disappointment in the musical is unavoidable given the economics of putting on a Broadway show in the 2010s. Ortega filled the screen with newsies; the director of the stage version, Jeff Calhoun, and the choreographer, Christopher Gattelli, have fifteen young dancers to work with. They do what they can, and Tobin Ost helps them out considerably with his metal scaffold of a set. But when Jack and Davey face up to Pulitzer (John Dossett, who’s less ridiculous than Robert Duvall was in the role but merely plays him as a scowling, two-dimensional villain) and tell him to look out his window at the throngs of newsies below – a moment that was deeply satisfying in the movie – all we see are eight boys on an upstage platform. Still, the dancers are superb, every one of them. (Ryan Steele, as Specs, is outstanding, and he looks blissed-out when he dances.) And though there aren’t enough big numbers for my taste, Gattelli’s choreography is the show’s keynote. He devises a feisty, athletic style for the dances; he doesn’t make Jerome Robbins’s mistake in West Side Story of trading off the characters’ toughness when they start to dance – the moves are sometimes balletic but always muscular. The motif of “Carrying the Banner,” which should have been the opening number, is barrel jumps (pivots in the air), and they’re great. “Seize the Day” has somersaults and back flips built into it, as well as thrilling jump splits (leaps in the air with legs scissored apart), and there’s a marvelous bit where the boys execute a kind of sand dance with newspapers affixed to their boots. The second-act opening, “King of New York” (easily the best song in the score), where the boys celebrate their front-page photograph in a rival paper, contains some first-rate tap dancing, and at the end of it a few of the newsies walk out on their hands. As they tap the boys wave spoons with ice-cream-scoop handles that dazzle in the light. (Jeff Croiter designed the lighting.)

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.

Lindsay Mendez and Derek Klena star in Dogfight (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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
Except for Taylor’s glowing performance, the movie doesn’t have anything to recommend it. It’s sentimental and synthetic; Savoca seems to be trying for something like the hyperbolic style Philip Kaufman pulled off in The Wanderers, which is set in the same era, but she doesn’t have the skill for it, either visually or with the actors. The other Marines come across as cartoonish, and Phoenix, on whom so much of the film depends, can’t find the right tone – both his tough-guy posturing and his sensitivity seem like put-ons. (One of the many sad elements of Phoenix’s untimely death was that he was just starting to figure out how to act in his last movies.) The picture’s about a young man who’s struggling to hide his tender side, to behave like the jeering, aggressive parody of masculinity he and his comrades believe they’re supposed to be, but who doesn’t have the heart for it; it’s about a boy who’s trying to figure out how to be a man.  But it’s such a mess that you have to work out the theme afterwards on your own; while it’s going on the two halves of the story – the dogfight and the Eddie-Rose relationship that develops afterwards – feel like they belong to two separate pictures.

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)
Partly because the musical is darker than the movie, the relationship at the center of it doesn’t feel sentimental. The hooker Boland hires to win the dogfight for him, Marcy (Annaleigh Ashford), isn’t a caricature; she’s as hard-boiled as one of the heroines Barbara Stanwyck played in her early years in Hollywood. When Rose overhears her fight with Boland in the ladies’ room at the club, her shock prompts Marcy to sing the bitter title song, an acid survivor’s manual in which she explains to Rose, “You let them win / And a dog’s what you become” and urges her, “Where’s your bite? / Let’s see your bite / Learn to bite.” (Thanks largely to Ashford, the number is a knockout.) The romantic story – the story, it transpires, of two virgins – contains contrasting high notes, but they’re underscored with melancholy. Pasek and Paul are genuine finds: Dogfight has the best original score I’ve heard in a musical since David Yazbek’s for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. They sometimes err on the side of overstatement, but the music is often beautiful (one ballad, “Give Way,” is gorgeous) and the lyrics are unfailingly intelligent and sometimes quite complex. The opening number, “Some Kind of Time,” shifts ingeniously from a reflection on the quality of memory (Eddie’s recollection as his bus travels toward San Francisco) to a promise of a the wild night the Marines plan for their last one stateside, while our knowledge of what these innocent would-be heroes will encounter in the jungle, in the days before Vietnam was even seen as a war, makes their fervor feel desperate – truly a final fling. The last song, “Come Back,” operates in a similar way. Pasek and Paul, whose first major production this is, have evidently studied their musical theatre: they’ve developed an instinct for where and how to use songs. The duet, “Don’t Know Why I Came,” which Eddie and Rose sing – each expressing private thoughts – as they wend their way to their restaurant dinner, takes us inside the characters in a way that the movie couldn’t have done even if it had been a lot better than it was; it’s a lesson in what a show song can do that other forms of drama can’t.

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.

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