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In the 1992 screen comedy Honeymoon in Vegas, Nicolas Cage gets over his prolonged wedding jitters and flies exasperated fiancée Sarah Jessica Parker to Nevada to tie the knot, only to risk losing her to shady professional gambler James Caan, who sees her as a dead ringer for his dear departed wife. It’s the kind of innocuous fluff you more likely saw as an in-flight movie or cable rerun than in a theater, if at all. Certainly, the feeble business through two months of previews for this stage musical adaptation — including the lucrative holiday period — indicates that it’s on few folks’ favorite movie lists.
The good news is that the musical is a lot better than its commercial struggle suggests. It’s breezy and fun, full of toe-tapping numbers, witty design touches and frequent bursts of irreverent comic inspiration. But it sputters after a tremendously entertaining first act. Despite the effusive reviews that greeted its tryout run at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse in fall 2013, encouraging producers to make the move to Manhattan, this is a 2½-hour musical with maybe 90 minutes’ worth of decent material. Its frothiness is initially enjoyable until it becomes silly and then tiresome, before sparking back to life toward the end. Ultimately, the show feels slight.
Much of the most infectious stuff comes from composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown, whose talent as a songsmith is sharper than his nose for a winning property. Brown’s songs are more catchy than memorable, but their lyrics are clever and droll. Writing in a much lighter vein than his lush romantic work in The Last Five Years or The Bridges of Madison County, his tunes here pastiche the unmistakable 1960s Rat Pack sound with flair. He also delivers a big brassy overture laced with squealing trumpets and glissando piano flourishes, and a bouncy entr’acte, both of which showcase the musicians clearly having a ball up on an onstage bandstand.
Anna Louizos‘ vibrantly cartoonish, quick-change sets are also a delight, evoking everything from a friendly Brooklyn neighborhood to a Hawaiian island paradise, but primarily the tacky Vegas of the Flamingo, Stardust and Golden Nugget era that predates the gambling mecca’s makeover as a luxury destination. That vein is furthered by amusing use of a cheesy lounge singer (David Josefsberg), topped by a pomaded mullet and flanked by two divinely funny showgirls (Leslie Donna Flesner, Erica Sweany) in pink bugle beads and plumage.
But the choice to set the show in the present day is somewhat mystifying. Brown’s lyrics and Andrew Bergman‘s book, adapted from his own screenplay, namecheck Shake Shack, Jay-Z, Beyonce and Bruce Jenner, as well as having tourists constantly snapping selfies — all of which feels incongruous. The only requirement for the story is that it be set A.E. (After Elvis), so the early ’80s would have been a better fit for the look and feel of the show and for the slightly gamy vulgarity of Bergman’s humor.
In the leading role of Jack Singer, the excellent Rob McClure works hard and is a winning nebbish. A poster boy for Jewish guilt, he’s still in the grip of a mother (Nancy Opel) who passed ten years earlier, extracting a deathbed promise that he would never try replacing her with a wife. The vivid reappearance of her ghost out of a Tiffany display case while he’s choosing an engagement ring is hilarious. McClure gets a buoyant opening number in “I Love Betsy,” which conveys the joy of a guy who, even after five years, still can’t believe his luck.
However, as Betsy, Brynn O’Malley seems not quite a natural for this kind of screwy comedy. She’s been charming in other shows, notably the recent Annie revival, and she sings beautifully. But the costume, hair and makeup team has SJPed all over her, hardening the attractive brunette into a tough-looking blonde. With her spray-tanned, super-toned arms and legs, and harsh, platinum wig, she looks more like a crass Real Housewife than the good-hearted, Vassar-educated schoolteacher whom Jack adores. That undermines the joke when she doubles as the dead wife of high roller Tommy Korman (Tony Danza), though her emergence out of the hotel pool in a bikini and a beehive is one of the show’s best sight gags, cued by strains of Bernard Herrmann‘s Vertigo music.
Danza strikes a nice balance between suave and sleazy, which is essential to maintain audience affection for a character who finagles his way via a poker game to an ostensibly chaste weekend with another man’s fiancée, and then plays dirty to steal her away. The Taxi and Who’s the Boss? star’s sitcom timing gets put to good use, and while his vocals are on the thin side, he carries a tune with confidence. Trailed by Tommy’s goombah sidekick, Johnny Sandwich (Matthew Saldivar), Danza tackles the role with laidback Sinatra-style panache, and it works. And while his tap-dancing is not going to trouble Savion Glover, the audience eats it up.
The big problems in Bergman’s book occur when Tommy’s shifty arrangement takes the three main characters to Hawaii and everything stalls. Numbers like “Friki-Friki,” in which a decoy working for Corman (Catherine Ricafort) waylays Jack, and the interminable “Airport Song,” where ticketing agents do likewise, beg to be cut. The show never fully regains its momentum, but the arrival of the “Flying Elvises” — a team of skydiving Presley impersonators led by the terrific Josefsberg doing double-duty — is a hunka-hunka help. Their song, “Higher Love,” with its goofy refrain of “Jump, jump, jumpity-jump,” is a blast of demented fun and among director Gary Griffin‘s niftiest bits of musical staging.
Choreographer Denis Jones doesn’t get a lot to do, but his splashy first-act closing number, “Do Something,” has the enjoyably kitschy feel of something whipped up by the Love Boat crew. A more liberal dollop of that retro sensibility, along with some judicious editing, might have significantly improved this good-time musical, which nonetheless deserves a larger audience than it’s been drawing in previews.
Cast: Rob McClure, Brynn O’Malley, Tony Danza, David Josefsberg, Nancy Opel, Matthew Saldivar, George Merrick, Catherine Ricafort, Matt Allen, Tracee Beazer, Grady McLeod Bowman, Barry Busby, Leslie Donna Flesner, Gaelen Gilliland, Albert Guerzon, Raymond J. Lee, Jessica Naimy, Zachary Prince, Jonalyn Saxer, Brendon Stimson, Erica Sweany, Cary Tedder, Katie Webber
Director: Gary Griffin
Music & lyrics: Jason Robert Brown
Book: Andrew Bergman, based on the Castle Rock Entertainment motion picture
Set designer: Anna Louizos
Costume designer: Brian Hemesath
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designers: Scott Lehrer, Drew Levy
Choreographer: Denis Jones
Music director: Tom Murray
Orchestrations: Don Sebesky, Larry Blank, Jason Robert Brown, Charlie Rosen
Presented by Dena Hammerstein, Roy Gabay, Rich Entertainment Group, Dan Farah, Metro Card, King’s Leaves, Dan Frsihmasser, Leslie Greif/Thom Beers, Susan Dietz & Lenny Beer, Howard Hoffman/Anna Czekaj, Important Musicals, Sharon Karmazin, L.G. Scott, Martin Markinson, in association with Ken Greiner/Ruth Hendel, Krauss Freitag/Boyle Koenigsberg, Rick Steiner/Bell-Staton Group, Pam Pariseau and Paper Mill Playhouse
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