Thursday, April 12, 2012

Theater Roundup: ‘Newsies’ from Screen to Stage; Simon's 'Lost' Found

Starring Jeremy Jordan, John Dossett, Kara Lindsay, Capathia Jenkins
Music by Alan Menken; lyrics by Jack Feldman; book by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Jeff Calhoun; choreographed by Christopher Gattelli
Previews began March 15, 2012; opened March 29; closes August 19
Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street, New York, NY

Lost in Yonkers
Starring Alec Beard, Dominic Comperatore, Stephanie Cozart, Matthew Gumley, Cynthia Harris, Russell Posner, Finnerty Steeves
Written by Neil Simon; directed by Jenn Thompson
Previews began March 13, 2012; opened March 22; closes April 14
TACT at the Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
tactnyc.orgThe cast of Newsies (photo by Deen van Meer)
Disney’s latest Broadway endeavor is Newsies, based on Kenny Ortega’s 1992 movie musical about an 1899 newsboys’ strike in New York City that pitted poor, young newspaper sellers against publishing titans like Joseph Pulitzer, who raised prices under the assumption that the kids would simply capitulate. Needless to say, they don’t.

The entertaining movie, which flopped 20 years ago, features Christian Bale years before he hit stardom as Batman--but no one wanted to see an old-fashioned Hollywood musical about paperboys on strike. The Broadway show has the same hurdles to clear, but between Disney’s PR machinery and family-friendly subject matter, it will surely perform better onstage than onscreen.

Actually, this Newsies is pretty much irresistible, starting with Jeremy Jordan as Jack Kelly, the leader of the striking--and ultimately triumphant--“boys” (most of the actors are much older than their characters, of course). Jordan (who was a racy Clyde Barrow in the recent flop musical, Bonnie and Clyde, on Broadway) has star quality in his veins, leading-man good looks and a strong singing voice. The rest of the “kids” are mostly indistinguishable, excepting little Lewis Grosso as an adorable Les, younger brother of reluctant new newsie Davey.

The major difference between movie and musical is Jack’s love interest. In the movie, she’s Davey and Les’s sister, who never appears in the show; instead, a convoluted subplot introduces Katherine (sweet-voiced Kara Lindsay), a budding reporter who turns out to be--oh, the humanity!--bad guy Pulitzer’s daughter.

The songs by composer Alan Menken and lyricst Jack Feldman (most originally from the movie) are serviceable, Christopher Gattelli’s choreography--especially in the rousing dances for the newsies--is spectacular, and Jeff Calhoun’s savvy direction makes the most of Tobin Ost’s clever erector-set design, which constantly moves to and fro to keep visual interest whenever the otherwise delightful family show marks time.
Steeves, Gumley and Posner in Lost in Yonkers (photo by Stephen Kunken)
Off-Broadway, Neil Simon’s 1991 Pulitzer and Tony winner, Lost in Yonkers, is being wonderfully revived by the enterprising theater company TACT, and whatever’s lost in the transition from the Broadway stage to TACT’s tiny space is compensated for by an intimacy heretofore unseen in Simon’s most autobiographical work.

On the heels of his acclaimed ‘80s trilogy--comprising Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound--Lost in Yonkers is Simon’s most fully rounded and satisfying play. It’s hard to fathom that, a mere two decades ago, Simon was a box-office sensation, and today he’s remembered for his superficial comedies with one-liners strewn throughout, like Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple.

The usual one-liners also make their way to Yonkers, as 15-year-old Jay and 13-year-old Artie--who in 1942 are made to live with their stern Grandma Kurnitz when dad Eddie must leave town to find work to pay off a loan shark--muster enough zingers for a top comic’s stand-up routine. Yet such verbal virtuosity is the boys’ defense mechanism to steel themselves against the adults in their lives: in addition their father and grandmother, there’s flighty Aunt Bella and crooked Uncle Louie.

Simon’s sentimental and schematic play is essentially Death of a Salesman with jokes, but his flawed characters are warmer and more plausibly human than Arthur Miller’s. In Jenn Thompson’s beautifully paced staging, it’s well worth spending two-plus hours with this family, brought to life by a cast which flawlessly combines sitcom jokiness and touching vulnerability.

The boys, Matthew Gumley (Jay) and Russell Posner (Arty), are pitch-perfect. Even more impressive while stepping into the formidable (and Tony-winning) shoes of Mercedes Ruehl and Irene Worth, respectively, are Finnerty Steeves (Bella) and Cynthia Harris (Grandma), who triumph by avoiding the strong pull of caricature. Getting Lost in Yonkers is time well-spent.

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