“Bang, Zoom!”, “To the Moon, Alice!”, “One of These Days… One of These Days… POW! Right in the Kisser!”, “Hamina-Hamina-Hamina-Hamina”, “Baby, You’re the Greatest!”
Expectations were high for Dusty Kay’s (television writer and producer of Entourage and Roseanne) and Bill Nuss’ (showrunner, writer, and producer of over 300 hours of network prime-time series) new musical The Honeymooners, which opened last night at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. The cast is top rate, as are the sets, costumes, director, and choreographer, but somehow nothing really works. Adapted from Jackie Gleason’s legendary television sitcom, you get a sense of the show with the amazing talent of Ralph Kramden (Michael McGrath), Ed Norton (Michael Mastro) and Ralph’s wife, Alice (Leslie Kritzer), but when the material is just mediocre, there is not much that you can do. Instead of just bringing to life some of the episodes of The Honeymooners, what we get is an implausible plot line and a script that breaks the fourth wall for no reason at all, except to try and add humor.
Set a few weeks before Christmas, we enter Manhattan and Brooklyn, circa 1950. Ralph Kramden, a New York City bus driver, is up for yet another promotion, but when he gets turned down again, he immediately goes to his best friend Ed Norton, a municipal-sewer-worker. As he picks up the newspaper, he sees a jingle contest where the two can win $500. For those of you who ever watched The Honeymooners, we are perfectly on track for how the episodes went. What happens next, not so much. The two win the contest and are offered jobs that pay $400.00 a week at a Madison Avenue advertising agency. Not bad, considering they are only making $65.00 a week now. The agency realizes right away this is a bad idea until the client “Old Man Faciamatta” (Lewis J. Stadlen) whose product Faciamatta Mazzeroni Cheese is the boys favorite and the client connects with the two. Suddenly, the musical turns into a weird episode of Mad Men, with Bryce (Lewis Cleale) wanting to replace Ralph. Norton is against this until Bryce uses Norton’s wife Trixie as bait.
In this plot line, the writers use a tidbit of information that was only revealed in a lost episode of The Honeymooners. It seems Norton’s wife, Trixie (Laura Bell Bundy), was a former burlesque dancer, but the studio considered that too risqué so they never brought it up. In the musicalize version, Trixie’s ex-boss offers her a lead singer job at the El Morocco nightclub, but she kisses him which adds more to the plot. It’s due to Trixie and Alice that the show gets its happy ending, but before that, friendships and marriages are tested. The show ends with the commercial airing on a live broadcast of the Cavalcade of Stars, Jackie Gleason’s (Michael L. Walters) variety show, which allows Kramden to meet his real self.
John Rando’s (Tony and Outer Critic winner for Urinetown, On the Town (Tony Nom), A Christmas Story, The Musical) direction wins when he creates the intimacy that the show had in abundance, but he is burdened with of all the choreography that happens every two seconds. Joshua Bergasse (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, On the Town) is a talented choreographer and his ensemble of four women and eight men are all high caliber Broadway performers. Instead of blending in, each stands out. It’s highly distracting. In the song “Love Gone Down the Drain”, sung and danced by Ed Norton, instead of allowing this fabulous performer to take the stage and wow us, we get the ensemble behind him, which crippled the number. In “Toast of the Town” instead of this wonderful dream sequence, we get a blown out tap number. Great tapping, but not exactly what was called for. What made the least amount of sense though was when the uptight ad agency broke into a tarantella that turned into an Irish jig to show how thrilled they were to have signed “Old Man Faciamatta” account. Or the strip number “Keeping it Warm” where they dressed instead of undressed. Sometimes keeping it simpler is better.
The score also doesn’t succeed. The music by Stephen Weiner is for the most part forgettable. I found myself singing from Pasek and Paul as I left the theatre because one of the songs in the show was based on “Just Like That” from A Christmas Story, The Musical. The lyrics by Peter Mills, do succeed with some really clever rhymes. The songs that work are “To the Moon”, “Love Gone Down the Drain”, “Keeping it Warm” and “A Woman’s Work”. Though Leslie Kritzer sings the hell out of “A Woman’s Work” and gets a rousing round of applause, the song itself is musically not in the same genre as the rest of the show and seems out of place.
Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design captures the Manhattan skyline dwarfed by the full moon as well as all the other scenes. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are over the top and don’t always keep the period, but I did love the delightful sheep costumes.
What saves this show are the performances by Michael McGrath, Michael Mastro, and Leslie Kritzer. They each have captured the essence of Ralph, Ed, and Alice. Mr. McGrath though could use some strength in his vocals. Mastro is a find and I wish he was given more, as he shines as Ed. Ms. Kritzer is a star and I wish someone would give her the lead role she deserves. Vocally she is out of this world and proved it in this show, and her interpretation of Alice was dead on. Laura Bell Bundy’s Trixie doesn’t seem to be in the same show and I am not sure if that has to do with the writing or her performance. Like Mr. McGrath, her vocals were not as strong. Also spot on were Mr. Stadlen as “Old Man Faciamatta”, David Wohl as the agency owner, Chris Dwan as Ralph’s rival jingle writer, and Mr. Walters as Jackie Gleason.
Will The Honeymooners make it to Broadway? Hamina-hamina-hamina-hamina.
The Honeymooners, Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ until October 29th.