Theater reviews: Broadway Newsies,' 'Ghost' memorable, but not for plot or writing


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NEW YORK -- As is often the case, the Broadway season saw a just-under-the-Tony-nominations-wire rush of musicals, including "Nice Work If You Can Get It (reviewed Sunday), "Leap of Faith" (already closed) and "Newsies: The Musical" and "Ghost: The Musical" (both so called to distinguish them from the original movies), both reviewed here. The first three plus "Once the Musical" also happen to be the four nominees -- shutting out "Spider Man," which was also in the running -- for the much coveted best musical Tony Award, to be presented June 10.

'Newsies'

The story is engaging enough, with its downtrodden heroes and plutocratic villains, but it's also thoroughly predictable. What lifts "Newsies" up and makes it enjoyable is its energy, expressed in what seems in retrospect to be nonstop dancing.

So it's interesting that the director, Jeff Calhoun, another Pittsburgh area native (North Hills) started out as a dancer and made his early mark on Broadway as a choreographer. Here, he works with choreographer Christopher Gattelli, but don't you suppose there's a dynamic where a director who started out as a choreographer continues to use dance especially well to tell a story? Or is it just that such a director is more likely to be offered shows with a heavy dance component?

Of course, Mr. Calhoun has done well by more than just dance musicals. But there's no denying that dance is the glory of this show, with a stage full of "newsies" -- teenage newsboys, in the parlance of the turn of the 20th-century -- acting out their protest, passion and just plain high spirits, surging all over a three-level set.

It's based on the 1992 musical Disney movie of the same name. The newsies, ragamuffins all, are caught in one of the newspaper wars of that benighted time long before the Internet. Their publisher is none other than Joseph Pulitzer himself, whose name is usually a byword for public spirit, partly because he left his fortune to polish that name beyond the grave.

Here, Pulitzer bumps up the wholesale price the newsies pay from 2 cents to 2.1 cents -- minuscule seeming, but taking 10 percent or so right out of their pockets. His plan is that by squeezing their profits, he can make them work harder to sell more papers just to stay even. And thus, the capitalist leader sucks up more profit due to his workers' increased productivity. Yes, this sounds like an economic strategy we hear praised today.

But "Newsies" doesn't want to bother its busy head with politics, it just wants to sing and dance. There is a love interest, of course, but we aren't invited to think too seriously about the relative ages of the dynamic newsie leader (played with great energy by Jeremy Jordan), who's what, 18?, and the female reporter (Kara Lindsay), who's probably in her mid-20s.

Pulitzer, the cheery villain, is played with charming panache by John Dossett (a Pittsburgher at one remove, married to Butler's Michelle Pawk). Audience favorites are the crippled newsie, the tiny young newsie, etc. Really, this is like a Disney version of Dickens, which is to say, with the darkness and dread removed.

But lots of bounce remains, along with a serviceable book by Harvey Fierstein (who has done better) and score by Alan Menken (ditto) and Jack Feldman (lyrics).

I can't imagine it won't tour.

At the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St.; call 866-870-2717.

'Ghost'

The excitement of "Ghost The Musical" is that it opens like the movie it's based on -- projected images rushing by, a projected title -- and then specializes in cool visual effects, mainly through clever lighting, including such surprises as the dematerializing of what a moment before was a demonstrably solid door.

This is in the service of the same story as in the original 1990 postmortem movie romance: hotshot young banker is ripped from the arms of his artsy lover; murdered, he returns as a ghost and discovers that his assiduous assistant had arranged his death, in pursuit of a lot of money and probably the woman, as well; how to foil him and save her?

The stage effects are what make the show fun, in conjunction with one great role, a fake psychic who turns out to have real powers. That's fine for the plot, but it's her comic pizzazz that matters. This is clear in Act 2, when, used to help resolve the plot, she isn't as much fun. I hope the role does as much for Da'Vine Joy Randolph in the Tony race as it did for Whoopi Goldberg in the Oscars (she won).

The rest of the show gets by on those spooky effects ("illusions by Paul Kieve"), in spite of a totally unmemorable score. In a way, the knowing direction by Matthew Warchus is probably better than the substance of the story deserves, but the result is certainly crowd-pleasing.

"Ghost" has a few ghosts of its own. There's its great forebear of the same title, Ibsen's 1881 classic shocker about the sins of the father and other issues more serious than in this clever but thin construct. Even given that the physics of ghosts is all made up, what we're told here doesn't make much spiritual sense, let alone theological. So leave your inner geek at home or you'll chase yourself up many a blind alley trying to figure out the inconsistent interactions of ghost and human, which seem to change as the plot requires.

The other chief ghost is Shakespeare. I heard echoes of "Richard III" and "Macbeth," where other ghosts arise to taunt the guilty. Well, why not? -- "Ghost" opened on Broadway on Shakespeare's birthday. And it does offer brief touches of the genuinely macabre.

"Ghost" premiered in England and has already launched some international companies. An American tour is inevitable, if only to show us the cool effects.

At the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th St,; tickets at 800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com.

theaterreviews

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: crawson@post-gazette.com. First Published May 30, 2012 4:00 AM


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