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Good news; Gattelli worries about his charges in Broadway hit

Seventeen young dancers stop horsing around on the Nederlander Theatre stage as Christopher Gattelli approaches.

They've been practicing his high-energy moves in the empty house after a day off and Gattelli wants to make sure they're all feeling OK.

Is anything starting to hurt? If a jump is painful eight times a week, he reminds them, it can be changed. A transition can be adjusted. Don't forget to stretch, even between shows. Above all, stay safe.

The message is heard loud and clear. "We love you!" the 17 shout in unison.

Gattelli is not required to stop by the hit Broadway show "Newsies" these days, and he certainly isn't obligated to keep in touch with the dancers. But he was one and knows what they may be going through, especially as they add preparations for Tony Awards night on June 10.

"This is clearly a big month for them and I just want to say, 'Look, stay healthy,' " says Gattelli after the pep talk. "They're young and they think they're invincible. I've been there. I know that mentality."

Gattelli, 39, is a busy man these days -- in addition to "Newsies," he's choreographed "Godspell" on Broadway, directed and choreographed the goofy parody "Silence! The Musical" off-Broadway, and is preparing to choreograph "Dogfight" at Second Stage Theatre next month. Later this year, he is choreographing "The Great American Mousical" for the Goodspeed Opera House.

But it's "Newsies," the stage adaptation of a 1992 Disney film, that seems to make him smile the most. It is, he thinks, the purest expression of the kind of dance he most enjoys -- the thrilling combination of ballet spiced with bold athletic moves.

The musical is based on the true story of scrappy child newspaper sellers in turn-of-the-century New York who go on strike when the price of papers goes up unfairly. They must battle scabs, crooked officials, business types like Joseph Pulitzer and fearsome strike breakers carrying metal pipes.

Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman, who were responsible for the film's score, teamed up again to transform "Newsies" into a musical for the stage, reworking the songs and collaborating with a new story writer, Harvey Fierstein, known for his work in "Hairspray" and "La Cage aux Folles." There's a new romance added, but cult characters like Specs and Crutchie remain.

When "Newsies" director Jeff Calhoun was given a short list of 10 potential candidates to choreograph the show, he was thrilled to see Gattelli's name. "Not only was he a great dancer, but he's a great storyteller," says Calhoun. "I didn't entertain another name on that list."

Gattelli approached the work with characteristic care. The dancers don't really move in unison at the beginning, only doing so when they've formed a union toward the end, with their feet pointed and their arms straight. They seem to leap with their chests, conveying their sense of pride. And when they show off with their back flips or spins, a sense of individuality remains.

"I know that it's rare to be in a show that can let you express yourself in the way that makes you special," he says. "That was a really important thing to me to be able to do for this group, especially with their talents -- because they're insane."

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