Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Yet, for much of its length, The Honeymooners is a stitched together, mechanical farrago of sketch comedy, situation comedy and old fashioned musical comedy which too often drains the believable humanity from our old television friends, rendering large swatches of their tribulations in the book by Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss uninvolving and tedious. However, Kay and Nuss do provide an unexpected turn of events late in the second act which is inventive and quite entertaining. It will not be revealed here.
Stephen Weiner's 1950s generic musical comedy style score lacks verve. Peter Mills' lyrics are generally serviceable, dexterously employing a barrage of simple yet clever rhymes. Limited by the nature of his characters, Mills' lyrics display workmanship rather than inspiration.
Ralph's get rich quick scheme is to enter a contest that involves writing a jingle for Faciamatta Mazzeroni cheese. Somehow, Old Man Faciamatta ends up demanding that the ad agency hire Kramden and Norton to write the jingle.
The musical's best written, most affecting moment occurs in the dénouement of the scene in which the delusional and impractical Ralph brings Alice to view a swank, surely beyond his means Park Avenue apartment that he intends to rent. The practical Alice tries to bring Ralph back to reality. They bicker in song, and Ralph loses his temper and physically threatens Alice ("Bang, Boom to the Moon"). Alice challenges Ralph.
Alice: you're never gonna do it!...
The scene continues establishing that Ralph and Alice are deeply devoted to one another, and that Alice knows that Ralph acts out verbally because he is totally frustrated about not being able to give Alice all the nice things that she deserves. Putting aside how reprehensible we all know Ralph's behavior to be, this scene reflects a common life experience, and, along with it being artfully composed (going from song to dialogue with superior dramatic effect), it is emotionally effective while theatrically explaining the underlying emotional basis for one of the most enduring comedy series in television history.
The authors employ an oft-repeated construct of the modern era of integrated musicals dating back to Oklahoma! with the juxtaposition of two romantically involved couples. In furtherance of this, Ed and Trixie are outfitted with romantic complications involving the re-emergence of Trixie's former suitor. This subplot presenting a new view of the Nortons brings precious little to us in the way of entertaining material, involvement or laughter.
Michael McGrath and Leslie Kritzer are spot-on in their reproductions of the TV Ralph and Alice. Beyond providing accurate impersonations of these roles as performed by Gleason and Audrey Meadows, there are genuine sparks between them as they maintain the comedic and emotional heft of their roles. Although its performance is stylistically and tonally out of synch with the Alice Kramden she has so effectively brought to life, Kritzer entertainingly delivers a jazzy, breezy "showstopper" rendition of the brassy "A Woman's Work" during which she becomes a musical doppelganger of Ella Fitzgerald.
Michael Mastro's Norton delights by way of being a ringer for Art Carney's original. Norton is more savvy than the dimwitted foil he was for Ralph on the 39 half-hour sitcom episodes which have become a television staple. However, this Norton is in keeping with the Norton of the preceding sketches on the Gleason "Cavalcade of Stars" variety series, and fits in well with the musical's plot. As Trixie, Laura Bell Bundy smoothly and entertainingly complements Mastro's Norton. Trixie (Joyce Randolph on the classic episodes) had a smaller role than the others on the series, and was portrayed as a conservative housewife. Here, for plot and musical theatre purposes, her background as a former burlesque performer which was more prominently emphasized on the preceding variety series is brought to the fore. This will likely be disconcerting to The Honeymooners audiences who only know the series from the perennially watched episodes.
Director John Rando delivers a smooth, well-cast and performed production strongly anchored in The Honeymooners' original era. Appropriately and surprisingly, Rando does not appear to tweak the material to please those who would prefer that representations of an earlier time be scrubbed for modern sensibilities. Beowulf Boritt's scenic design is supple and eminently playable. Boritt wisely limits the size of the cramped Kramden and Norton apartments. Overall, the scenery appears a bit skimpy and suitable for touring. Joshua Bergasse's by the numbers choreography is rather perfunctory.
The Honeymooners provides sufficient pleasurable light entertainment for audiences inclined to enjoy a light, old fashioned musical comedy based on the classic vintage Gleason sitcom.
The Honeymooners continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday and Thursday 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday 8 pm; Sunday 7 pm/ Matinees: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 pm) through October 29, 2017, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.