In a mediocre season for Broadway musicals, I had some hopes for Newsies. The new Disney-produced musical (based on the studio’s 1992 film, a box office failure) starts with an intriguing premise: a little-remembered strike by New York newsboys in 1899, which pitted a gang of street kids against some of the nation’s most powerful press lords. The show marks an interesting reboot for Disney, whose efforts to recycle their hit animated films on stage (The Little Mermaid, Tarzan) have been getting less and less mileage at the box office. The show got rave reviews when it debuted last year at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, prior to a transfer to Broadway last week.
Newsies, to be sure, is a slick, professional show. The story is told well (as Disney shows usually are), the actors are competent and appealing; and director Jeff Calhoun keeps the energy level high, particularly in the many acrobatic dance numbers. Why, then, does the show seem about as disposable as yesterday’s paper?
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A few ideas. For all the supposed New Yawk street cred (“Take it down, short stuff”), these turn-of-the-century newsboys are drawn with Crayola — the old boxes, the ones with just eight colors. Jack Kelly (Jeremy Jordan), the leader of the strike, is your generic street hustler with a sensitive side (he dreams of moving to Santa Fe, we learn in a dreary song); his partner Davey (Ban Fankhauser) is the naïve Mama’s boy who has to be taught the ropes on the street; one newsboy with a bum leg who struggles around on a crutch (Andrew Keenan-Bolger) is called, God help us, Crutchie. The ginned-up love interest — Kara Lindsay as a reporter and Joseph Pulitzer’s daughter, who falls for Jack — is about as perfunctory as you can get away with and still be invited to the Tony Award banquet.
What could have helped? Alan Menken’s score, for one thing, might have tried to capture at least a little of the flavor of the era. Not a whiff of ragtime; and even the one period dance-hall number, “That’s Rich,” seems like a missed opportunity. The show has a lot of motion but too little wit, or grit. How about a number making fun of the pandering, sensational headlines the boys keep complaining they need to sell papers? It’s the heyday of yellow journalism, but we don’t see a single headless body, or even a topless bar. Way too crass for this polite, upbeat, by-the-numbers show.
My expectations for End of the Rainbow were just the opposite. This musical play re-creating Judy Garland’s last, trouble-plagued singing engagement in England, six months before her death from a drug overdose in 1969, won raves in London mainly for its star, Tracie Bennett. But who needs another Judy Garland impression decked out as a full evening of Broadway theater?
Well, we do. Peter Quilter’s script, first of all, is a surprisingly sturdy vehicle. Set in Garland’s hotel suite, as she tries to stay off drugs and booze so she can get through her five-week run at a London club called Talk of the Town, it is one of the best close-up portraits of a star in extremis that I have seen. The focus is on Garland, of course, but also on the attendants and enablers around her, chiefly her new manager and soon-to-be fifth husband, Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey), and an admiring British piano accompanist (Michael Cumpsty).
Celebrity meltdowns are the stuff of cliché, both on stage and on Entertainment Tonight, but Quilter and director Terry Johnson have made this one unusually particularized, authentic and nonjudgmental. Deans, for example, could easily have been a stock villain, a user who feeds her pills to get her back onstage after she breaks down midway through one performance. But his agonized choice between blowing her career and caving in to her addiction is shockingly easy to understand. Enablers have reasons too.
Then, of course, there is Judy. As much as you will hear about Tracie Bennett’s extraordinary performance, she surpasses it. Bennett, a 50-year-old veteran of the British stage, captures the middle-aged Garland’s girlish-mannish look, and her husky, quavery, teetering-on-the-edge voice. But she does far more than an impersonation. Moving spasmodically about the hotel suite, thrusting her limbs and twisting her body into knots with a dancer’s lithe grace. Bennett goes beyond parody into something like poetry. She is magnetic, wrenching, a jolt of electricity from beginning to end. When Garland, after her breakdown, delivers a fevered, drug-fueled performance of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” it’s an illustration of the fine line between showmanship and psychosis, a commentary on the voyeurism that was so much a part of Garland’s appeal at the end. Standing ovations have become depressingly routine on Broadway, but Bennett actually deserves hers.
And that’s real news.
Zoglin, TIME’s theater critic and a former assistant managing editor, is the author of Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America
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