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The New York Times RAVES about Honeymoon In Vegas

The New York TimesTHEATER REVIEW
Tuneful Chutzpah and Schmaltz, Straddling Vegas and Broadway
‘Honeymoon in Vegas’ Opens at the Paper Mill Playhouse

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By BEN BRANTLEY
Published: October 11, 2013
HONEYMOON IN VEGAS SLIDE SHOW

MILLBURN, N.J. — Many a tut has been tutted in recent years over the contamination of Broadway by the spirit of Las Vegas, the world capital of the flashy, boozy floor show. So I am happy to report that you can score one for Team Broadway. The delightfully unexpected “Honeymoon in Vegas,” which opened this week at the Paper Mill Playhouse here, has wrestled the neon mirage of its title into the solid, satisfying shape of a classic Broadway musical.

Based on the 1992 movie by Andrew Bergman, who also wrote the salty book for this show, and featuring a revelation of a score by Jason Robert Brown, “Honeymoon in Vegas” is no facile satire. Instead, it captures, tickles and exalts the singular sensibility of a desert city based on surreal estate. Like Las Vegas itself, “Honeymoon” exists at the corner of tacky and hip. As performed under the single-malt-smooth direction of Gary Griffin, it’s a swinging hymn to laid-back outrageousness.

Though the songs have of-the-moment lyrics that brazenly rhyme Beyoncé with fiancée, and Prada with enchilada, “Honeymoon” could almost pass as one of the best musicals of the early 1960s. That was the last-gasp period for the well-made, un-self-conscious and insistently tuneful song-and-dance show. Such a throwback quality is appropriate to a work that takes place in a time-warp town, where the dapper, bacchanalian ghosts of the Rat Pack still haunt the casinos.

Certainly, the cooler-than-cool spirit of that group’s chairman of the board, Frank Sinatra, is present in “Honeymoon,” made flesh in a deliciously underplayed star turn by Tony Danza as an entrepreneur of dubious business deals and unquestionable power. But another, sweatier tutelary god of Las Vegas is on hand, too: Elvis, who shows up in the form of a deus-ex-machina chorus of parachuting Presley impersonators whom the choreographer Denis Jones knows just how to use.

These rival pop avatars shape the destiny of two hayseeds out of Brooklyn, Jack Singer and Betsy Nolan (a nicely matched Rob McClure and Brynn O’Malley), who have come to Las Vegas to get married. Or maybe not. Jack is still haunted by the possessive phantom of his mother, Bea (Nancy Opel), who extracted a deathbed promise from her son never to wed. As it happens, another dead woman occupies the thoughts of the Vegas kingpin Tommy Korman (Mr. Danza), whose dearly departed wife, Donna, died of skin cancer. (In a priceless model of tasteful tastelessness, Tommy laments the cause of her demise in a song called “Out of the Sun.”) And as it also happens, Betsy is a living ringer for Donna. This means that Tommy wants Betsy, and what Tommy wants, Tommy gets. You know all this already if you’ve seen Mr. Bergman’s original film, which starred James Caan, Nicolas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker. Normally, I’m all for calling a moratorium on musicals based on movies. Then along comes “The Producers,” or “Once,” or “Honeymoon in Vegas.” And, really, you wouldn’t think that “Honeymoon” could possibly work, adapting a convoluted screenplay that sets its characters twirling from New York parks to Las Vegas hotel palaces to the beaches of Hawaii. But as a moviemaker (in films that also include “The Freshman” and “Soapdish”), Mr. Bergman has brought a convincing deadpan logic to impossible situations. He knows that over-the-top is funniest when it’s presented at ground level.

Working with Mr. Griffin and a design team that includes Anna Louizos (sets) and Brian Hemesath (costumes), he translates that point of view to the stage with a droll sincerity that never strains for wild-and-crazy heights. The direction by Mr. Griffin (“The Color Purple”) is a paradigm of narrative clarity, even when “Honeymoon” is taking place in different time zones (and even different times) all at once.

But since this “Honeymoon” is a musical, what counts most is the music. And as soon as you hear the opening bars of the overture by Mr. Brown — who, as the composer of “Parade” and “The Last Five Years,” had been consigned to the commercial margins of “cerebral” post-Sondheim theater composers — you know you’re listening to the sound of success. (Mr. Brown will be represented on Broadway later this season with “The Bridges of Madison County.”) Packed with gleaming brass and cascading piano notes, the score melds Vegas chutzpah with Broadway schmaltz, or vice versa. One minute, it’s capturing the unctuous ring-a-ding bravado of a weary casino crowd pleaser (a fabulous David Josefsberg, equal parts Wayne Newton, Paul Anka and Robert Goulet), or blissfully sending up the frustrations of flight reservations in “Airport Song,” which makes inspired use of a single place-name. (Psst, it’s Atlanta.) The next, it’s spinning a love ballad whose gentleness is wittily belied by the improbable circumstances that surround it. With orchestrations by Don Sebesky that Nelson Riddle would be proud of, this music (overseen by Tom Murray) hooks you from the get-go; it’s as corny and sophisticated as Sinatra’s doing “Strangers in the Night,” and it revels in the contradiction.

Which brings me back to Mr. Danza, best known for the sitcoms “Taxi” and “Who’s the Boss?,” whose Tommy Korman may be the best musical portrayal of a gentleman gangster since the heyday of “Guys and Dolls.” His clipped, near-monotonal speaking and singing style is all mellow, mellow menace, which allows him to ring a variety of friendly and sinister nuances from the word “arrangement.” Tommy is not a screaming caricature but a very stylish cartoon, a beacon of elegant crudeness. He sets the tone and rhythms for a show that, surprisingly, never oversells itself. Even parts like the ghost of the monster mom (Ms. Opel knows just how far to take the role), a Hawaiian Mata Hari named Mahi (Catherine Ricafort) and Tommy’s fawning henchman (Matthew Saldivar) are never pushed to grotesque excess. In the midst of the show’s matter-of-fact madness, Mr. McClure (who wowed in the title role in Broadway’s “Chaplin” and Ms. O’Malley keep us grounded as an ordinary couple in extraordinary circumstances. They bring a conversational ease to their songs, while resisting the temptation to make frenzy cute. Our believing in their characters is crucial to our believing the unbelievable plot they find themselves trapped in.

So will this Vegas come to Broadway, where it belongs? One of the lessons of the ill-fated poker game that is central to this show is that nothing is a sure bet. But “Honeymoon,” bless its double-dealing heart, sure comes close to feeling like one.

Honeymoon in Vegas
Book by Andrew Bergman; music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown; based on the Castle Rock Entertainment motion picture written by Mr. Bergman; directed by Gary Griffin; choreography by Denis Jones; music director, Tom Murray; sets by Anna Louizos; costumes by Brian Hemesath; lighting by Paul Miller; sound by Randy Hansen; hair and wig design by Bettie O. Rogers; flying by Foy; production stage manager, Matthew DiCarlo; orchestrations by Don Sebesky; vocal and dance arrangements by Mr. Brown. Presented by Paper Mill Playhouse, Mark S. Hoebee, producing artistic director; Todd Schmidt, managing director. At Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, N.J.; (973) 376-4343; papermill.org. Through Oct. 27. Running time: 2 hours 38 minutes.
WITH: Tony Danza (Tommy Korman), David Josefsberg (Roy Bacon), Rob McClure (Jack Singer), Brynn O’Malley (Betsy Nolan), Nancy Opel (Bea Singer), Matthew Saldivar (Johnny Sandwich) and Catherine Ricafort (Mahi).