Jeremy Jordan (center) and company in  Newsies
(© T Charles Erickson)
Jeremy Jordan (center) and company in Newsies
(© T Charles Erickson)
It's hard to truly imagine that composer Alan Menken, lyricist Jack Feldman and the folks over at Disney could have foreseen that their flop 1992 film Newsies, now at the Paper Mill Playhouse, would not only be transformed into such a crowd-pleasing stage musical, but one that seems ready for an immediate Broadway transfer.

At the turn of the century, a motley crew of newsboys, led by the freethinking, charismatic Jack Kelly (Jeremy Jordan), decides to strike when legendary newspaper giant Joseph Pulitzer (John Dossett) raises the distribution price of The New York World by one tenth of a cent.

Jack, who previously ran away from a children's refuge that operated like a prison, finds an important ally in David (Ben Fankenhauser), who is working as a newsboy until his father recovers from an on-the-job injury, and David's cute little brother Les (a spunky Vincent Angello). In order to make their strike a success, they must gain the support of the newsboys of every borough, and ultimately every child laborer in New York City.

Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein has made extensive book revisions to the film's script and given much-needed depth to Jack and his dramatic arc. "Santa Fe," the solo in which Jack reveals his dream of leaving the city behind for a new life, opens up the show, and is repeated later on with different lyrics. Jack is also revealed to be a talented artist, creating scenery for the local vaudeville house. He also gets a love interest, courtesy of female reporter Katharine Plumber (Kara Lindsay).

The film's best songs have been carried over, including the upbeat "Carrying the Banner" and "King of New York," the infectious anthems "The World Will Know" and "Seize the Day," and of course "Santa Fe." While Menken and Feldman's new songs are admittedly not as intense or catchy, they serve the necessary purpose of filling in some gaps in the storytelling.

"Watch What Happens" is a terrific solo for Katharine, where she tries to write an article about the strike in spite of her doubts. On the other hand, "The News is Getting Better," a ragtime-flavored turn for Pulitzer in which he revels in his scheme of hiking up the prices, paints Pulitzer too broadly as a money-hungry villain.

Working with director Jeff Calhoun, Christopher Gattelli's choreography is extremely athletic and joyously spirited, with the newsboys doing flips and spins: "King of New York" is transformed into an ensemble tap number in which the cast dances on bar tables and then locks arms in a line. The young males perform the extensive movement with a gleaming sense of pride and a defiant spirit. The fight choreography, staged by J. Allen Suddeth, includes violent confrontations with strike breakers and police officers.

Tobin Ost's set consists of a massive three-story structure of connected scaffolds and stairways that can be twisted apart and spun around to suggest different locations. This jungle gym is complimented by Sven Ortel's extensive photo projections, which add realistic historical detail. The period costumes are by Jess Goldstein.

Jordan, who is already set to star in Bonnie and Clyde on Broadway later this fall, delivers a knockout performance as Jack Kelly that is full of sincerity, sex appeal, and grit. Lindsay is similarly convincing as the assertive but classy Katharine. Many of the other newsboys make strong impressions including a cheeky Andrew Keenan-Bolger as Crutchie. Unfortunately, Dossett portrays Pulitzer a bit too forcefully, barking too many of his lines.

Throughout the show, you cannot help but cheer the newsboys on as they move and march forward in their underdog quest. At a time when union power is being questioned by politicians and criticized as unfeasible in a recession economy, Newsies has unexpected timeliness to go with its amazing entertainment value.