Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 15, 2015
Honeymoon in Vegas Book by Andrew Bergman. Music & lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Based on the Castle Rock Entertainment Motion Picture. Director Gary Griffin. Choreographer Denis Jones. Music Director Tom Murray. Orchestrations by Don Sebesky, Larry Blank, Jason Robert Brown, Charlie Rosen. Scenic & projection design by Anna Louizos. Costume design by Brian Hemesath. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Scott Lehrer & Drew Levy. Wig & hair designs by Charles G. LaPointe. Cast: Rob McClure, Brynn O'Malley, and Tony Danza, also starring 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.
Take that however you like, by the way. As a musical comedy, it's rarely funny. As an adaptation of the same-titled 1992 film, with its screenwriter (Andrew Bergman) also scribing the book, it hits most of the biggest beats while missing all the necessary and defining nuances. Its catchy-but-forgettable score and shows its writer (Jason Robert Brown) at far from his best. Though it features three lead roles, the actors in the two starriest parts, Rob McClure and Tony Danza, are not well used. And, lest you thought I was exaggerating about the cheese, this production (which originated at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 2013) is as plasticky in look and feel as those bricks of orangey faux-American that occupy grocery store aisles because they don't need refrigeration until they’re opened.
Honeymoon in Vegas, then, is aptly titled, a fly-by-night almost-entertainment rather than a Broadway musical with delusions of substance. This is somewhat odd because Bergman’s screenplay tempered its fluffiness with some compelling weight. Its story was about a man named Jack who strives to keep his mother’s deathbed request that he never wed, but who falls for commitment-craving Betsy. On a slapdash trip to Vegas to tie the knot before he loses his nerve, Jack “loses” Betsy for a weekend to gambling big-shot Tommy in a poker game, and then has to figure out how to get her back.
The musical has done away with all those hard edges and high stakes, and transformed the romantic fantasy into a cartoon. Jack is now a clown, and a neurotic, hyperactive one as McClure plays him (without the restraint he showed as the lead in Chaplin in 2012). He lacks the psychological grounding that might make him a winning protagonist, to say nothing of an attractive mate to anyone. That Betsy (Brynn O’Malley) has remained level-headed only exacerbates this problem. Danza's Tommy is coldly cruel of word and anesthetized of manner; there’s not even a stray fleck of warmth hinting that maybe he isn't really so bad. Even Jack's mother has been expanded from a one-scene bit into a comic gremlin role for the straining Nancy Opel to grimace, mug, and masquerade her way through.
O'Malley and Matthew Saldivar, who plays Tommy's partner in crime, shine, because they’re allowed to be subdued and relatable; but everyone else — including Catherine Ricafort as a taxi-driving distraction for hire — works visibly hard for little effect and less identifiably humanity. (David Josefsberg scores as a greasy lounge singer and the leader of those parachuting Elvises, but neither role is substantial enough to make much impact.) Most of the show belongs to McClure and Danza, but the former is Zany-with-a-capital-Z and the latter snoozeworthy (even in his second-act would-be-show-stopping tap solo); this makes it impossible for them to impart the tension the preposterous premise requires.
A new scene set in the Garden of Disappointed Mothers, which the script appropriately describes as “a sort of Easter Island of mythic yentas,” is the apex of the pointlessness, and underscores the creative team’s inability to determine whether these events are supposed to be fact or fantasy. As a result, they succeed as neither; a slapdash, sloppy conclusion only compounds the issues inherent in the movie’s weakest scene. A musical’s book is not a free-for-all, but requires logic and care, two qualities Bergman has not provided.
Brown does better, and his score is what elevates certain moments to the realm of the average, but his compositions, which flip between easy-listening nightclub tunes and millimeter-thick theatrical writing, do not represent him at his comedic strongest. (I’d argue that’s The Last Five Years, at least in part; Brown’s serious work, which includes Songs for a New World, Parade, and last season’s The Bridges of Madison County, has traditionally been his glory.) Only Betsy’s songs, straightforward expressions of basic desires (“Anywhere But Here,” “Betsy’s Getting Married,” “I’ve Been Thinking”) engage him dramatically. The rest is generally disposable, with the second act in particular so crammed with filler it may as well be an air-mail shipping box.
The best number in objective terms is probably the opener, “I Love Betsy.” It’s not exactly atmosphere-setting and it’s certainly not big, but it’s loaded with character detail and the kind of flexible writing that’s branded Brown as an upper-level lyricist. It's a list song with more than a few hints of Porter ("I like Shake Shack / I like MOMA / And New Jersey's ripe aroma"), but it's jaunty and pleasant and not at all overblown, as so much here is. It's also the only time that McClure employs inner charm rather than antic energy in selling Jack — another big plus.
“I Love Betsy” suggests what Honeymoon in Vegas could have been had it been allowed to live and breathe and not operate on autopilot for two and a half hours. If Bergman, Brown, and Griffin wanted to create a great new Broadway musical, their final, cheesy product would be more at home in the acknowledged artificiality of Sin City than in a “legit” house where honesty always takes the pot.