'The Honeymooners': Theater Review
A quartet of Broadway veterans play the iconic roles in this musical adaptation of the classic sitcom, receiving its world premiere at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse.
Whether you’re old enough to have seen them when they first aired or grew up watching the reruns that have become a television staple, everyone loves The Honeymooners. The classic 1950s sitcom only produced 39 episodes (although the characters were seen in numerous other incarnations), but its cultural impact was massive. And if you watch one of the shows today, the comedy still holds up.
But here’s the thing. The shows were only a half-hour long. That, unfortunately, is not the case with the new musical version receiving its world premiere at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. Running two hours and 40 minutes, this bloated extravaganza feels like a Madame Tussauds exhibit come to sputtering life.
Director John Rando (Urinetown) has assembled a terrific cast of Broadway talents, but ultimately they're hamstrung by essentially having to imitate the inimitable original performers. Wearing extensive padding, Michael McGrath expertly recreates Jackie Gleason’s vocal delivery, signature stammering and physical gestures as bus driver Ralph Kramden. Michael Mastro similarly echoes Art Carney’s hilarious deadpan posturing as sewer worker Ed Norton. The two actors look uncannily like their predecessors and have their comic interactions down pat. But you’re always aware that you’re looking at impersonations. They’re not really playing Kramden and Norton; they’re playing Gleason and Carney playing Kramden and Norton.
Leslie Kritzer and Laura Bell Bundy have it slightly easier since their predecessors, Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph, while wonderful, didn’t have quite the iconic resonance of their male co-stars. Kritzer certainly recalls Meadows as Ralph's wife Alice, who not only handles her husband’s blowhard blustering, she gives it right back to him. But she somehow succeeds in making the role her own and also stops the show with her belting and scat-singing in the number "A Woman’s Work." Bundy is very appealing as Trixie, whose burlesque-dancer background is beefed up considerably in the musical.
Book writers Bill Nuss and Dusty Kay have extensive television credits (the latter was a supervising producer on both Entourage and Roseanne) but no theatrical experience. So it makes sense that this musical feels like an elongated Honeymooners episode featuring familiar tropes that garner instant audience reactions. The writers do at least show some restraint by not including a reference to "going to the moon" until 30 minutes into the proceedings.
The plot, which wouldn't have been out of place on the original series, concerns Ralph and Norton improbably winning a jingle-writing contest that lands them high-paying jobs at a top Madison Avenue advertising agency. But even while Ralph is gleefully attempting to persuade Alice to move to a palatial Park Avenue apartment, the duo’s future in the business is called into question by the fact that Ralph doesn’t actually possess any talent. When the agency’s creative director (Lewis Cleale) tries to persuade Norton to partner with another writer, it threatens to cause a rift in his friendship with Ralph. Meanwhile, Trixie snares a job as a showgirl at the swanky El Morocco nightclub, but when she distractedly lets her boss (Kevin Worley), who also happens to be her old boyfriend, kiss her, a full-blown marital crisis ensues.
The show dutifully includes Ralph’s trademark insults ("Norton, I swear there’s a straitjacket somewhere in the world with your name on it"), signature settings (the Raccoon Lodge) and plenty of opportunities for physical comedy (Ralph and Ed attempting to learn how to play golf). But the comedy feels vastly more forced here, live and in color, than it does in those vintage B&W episodes, and it's further deadened by the imitation factor. However, there is an undeniably clever twist near the conclusion that demonstrates the sort of inventiveness sadly lacking elsewhere in the evening.
The score by Stephen Weiner (music) and Peter Mills (lyrics) is proficient and yet totally unmemorable. Although some of the more intimate songs work well enough, such as "I'll Miss the Guy," a touching duet for Ralph and Norton, the overblown production numbers seem out of place in the otherwise intimate show. Whether it’s the chorus line of bus drivers singing about "The Madison Avenue Line," Ralph and Alice being joined by Manhattan society swells declaring them the "Toast of the Town," or the ad agency serenading their cheese manufacturer client (a very funny Lewis J. Stadlen) with the outlandish "Infine la Felicita," the lavishness feels strained.
It's hard to imagine who the audience is for this nostalgia-driven exercise, which mainly reminds us of the genius of its inspiration. Perhaps enough time has gone by for people not to mind the cultural appropriation. But in the unlikely event that The Honeymooners becomes a hit on Broadway or the regional circuit, it raises the terrifying question of whether an all-singing, all-dancing Seinfeld could be next.
Venue: Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, New Jersey
Cast: Michael McGrath, Michael Mastro, Leslie Kritzer, Laura Bell Bundy, Lewis Cleale, Lewis J. Stadlen, Davide Wohl, Holly Ann Butler, Chris Dwan, Hannah Florence, Tessa Grady, Stacey Todd Holt, Ryan Kasprzak, Drew King, Eloise Kropp, Harris Milgrim, Justin Prescott, Lance Roberts, Jeffrey Schecter, Britton Smith, Alison Solomon, Michael L. Walters, Kevin Worley
Book: Dusty Kay, Bill Nus
Music: Stephen Weiner
Lyrics: Peter Mills
Director: John Rando
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: Jess Goldstein
Lighting designer: Jason Lyons
Sound designer: Kai Harada
Choreographer: Joshua Bergasse
Presented by Paper Mill Playhouse