Honeymoon in Vegas
14 January 2014
Earlier this year, Jason Robert Brown’s exquisite original musical, Bridges of Madison County, closed prematurely and won the Tony Award for him for Best Score. The score was sublime, touching and stylish; the principal cast superb. Unaccountably, it did not garner much critical acclaim and its audiences, although enthusiastic, were not in numbers large enough to permit a long and successful run.
Now playing at Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre, is a new Jason Robert Brown musical, based on a successful movie, Honeymoon In Vegas. It is as completely unrecognisable as the progeny of the author of the score and lyrics of Bridges of Madison County as Marilyn is as the progeny of Lily and Herman Munster.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, just surprising.
Honeymoon in Vegas is the kind of Broadway musical that Bullets Over Broadway could have been had it been blessed with an original score. It’s arrant nonsense for the most part, but it has an infectious charm, some preposterous giggle-making twists and turns and a score that is frequently wonderful.
Jason Robert Brown is a gifted composer and here he shows his tawdry side; but that is not the whole picture. The music he has written covers a wide gamut: traditional Broadway fare, Las Vegas showroom pastiche, ballads that evoke the sense and style of Frank Sinatra as well as a tune or two that would not be out of place in a sequel to Book of Mormon. Sure, none of the tunes are particularly memorable, in a Cole Porter or Richard Rodgers kind of way, but then it’s been a long time since that was the measure of success.
No. Here, Jason Robert Brown has set out to write fun, jolly music for a silly story, and he has added some gorgeous ballads along the way and a couple of genuinely delightful show-stoppers. The orchestrations are terrific and Tom Murray’s musical direction full of zest and zing. The band are hot, a true Las Vegas sound comes to them easily.
The book has been adapted from the film by its author Andrew Bergman. It’s the kind of tale that once might have been a vehicle for Danny Kaye and Howard Keel. Jack promises his dying mother, Bea, that he will not marry because she wants to be sure in the afterlife that he loves her the best. Silly Jack. Inevitably, he falls in love with gorgeous Betsy and wants to marry her. Bea’s ghost haunts and traumatises him and so he nearly loses Betsy.
But Jack mans up and suggests he and Betsy fly to Las Vegas for a quick wedding, before the ghost of Ma Bea can get to him. Betsy agrees, they pack and go. While she is shopping for the wedding, he gets in a poker game and loses nearly $60,000 to a smooth gangster, Tommy Korman. Korman has spotted Betsy and realises she is the dead ringer of his deceased wife and he wants her for himself.
So, as you do, he bargains Jack’s near $60,000 debt to him against a weekend alone with Betsy. Jack confesses his stupidity to Betsy and she agrees to the date, but then is whisked off to Hawaii, Korman never having revealed the location of the date. There follows a race against time as Jack tries to win back Betsy and Korman tries to woo her and get her back to Vegas to a wedding chapel.
Along the way there are Hawaiian statues that dole out advice, a randy female tour guide who wants to “frisky, frisky” with Jack, a trio of airline staff who are camper than Roger de Bris and a set of sky-jumping Elvis impersonators who provide Jack with the final solution.
So, not exactly Sondheim, Hammerstein or even Irving Berlin. But the kind of madcap frolic that might have attracted the attention of Cole Porter or the Gershwins: I am not sure that either Anything Goes or Crazy For You could be sniffy about the machinations in Honeymoon in Vegas. Book of Mormon and Nice Work If You Can Get It certainly couldn’t.
It’s directed with efficient zeal and tongue firmly in cheek by Gary Griffin. Denis Jones provides serviceable choreography, but no more than that. Some of the zaniness of the plot might have been better reflected in the dancing to good effect.
Mostly, the casting is spot on. Rob McClure is fabulous and endearingly comic as the flustered and foolish Jack; his sense of whimsy and terror is finely judged. It’s a genuine comic delight – and he can sing sweetly and stylishly. His renditions of I Love Betsy and Isn’t That Enough? are terrific.
Bryn O’Malley makes a truly scrumptious Betsy, with legs that go on for days, and she is perky, pretty and precisely what a kooky leading lady should be. She manages the drunk acting well and I found her totally charming. She sings beautifully too – both Anywhere But Here and I’ve Been Thinking were delightful. Her rapport with McClure is excellent.
She also gets to play another character – Korman’s former wife who sunbathed to death. She is very funny in this Barbara Windsoresque turn, and quite different from Betsy.
Nancy Opel is magnificently hilarious as the ghastly old harridan who was Jack’s mother and who turns up in the most unlikeliest of places in order to thwart his marriage plans. Opel almost walks away with the show. She plays the part with gusto and brings a zany relish to every scene she graces. Her first entrance is a stunner and her rendition of Never Get Married a real highlight.
There is good work from Matthew Saldivar as Korman’s henchman (who notably changes his surname from Focaccia to Sandwich to fit in), Catherine Ricafort as the randy double agent Mari, George Merrick in several roles but especially as the super-camp flight attendant, and David Josefsberg as lounge act, Buddy Rocky, and as Roy Bacon who, as leader of the Flying Elvises, saves Jack’s bacon.
The one quibble with casting is Tony Danza who has the critical role of Tommy Korman. This is a role for a man dripping with style, finesse and suave charm. Danza seems more drip than anything else. His voice is flat and borderline boring, he can’t sing the songs which, if properly sung, would be showstoppers, and he has opted for a look which makes him seem like the poor man’s Daniel Craig.
Korman is a role for the likes of Victor Garber or Kevin Kline; for my money, Danza sucked the life out of a part that could win a real actor/singer a Tony Award. Still, to be scrupulously fair, the audience seemed to like him well enough, and especially when he went into his tap routine. But McClure got the standing ovation. And rightly so.
Korman’s song about his wife’s premature death by sunbed, Out Of The Sun, should be a showstopper. And the duet with O’Malley, You Made The Wait Worthwhile, should have been another real highlight. But Danza’s inability to sing and failure to imitate Sinatra’s crooning style sufficiently well meant the music never got full value. This is a real pity.
Anna Louizos provides a scenic and projection design which takes the audience from Brooklyn, to Tiffany’s, to Las Vegas, to Hawaii and then back to Las Vegas, including in a plane from which Jack skydives. It is all both sufficient and cheap enough to provide exactly the right sense for the piece. Brian Hemesath has a field day with garish and exotic costumes; he disguises Bea wonderfully for her special haunting appearances.
Some things don’t work that well: the opening of Act Two, Hawaii/Waiting For You needs attention and Fricky, Fricky, while fun, does labour the point. Some of the lyrics are not first class, but overall the score and lyrics are more than serviceable and frequently catchy and amusing. It’s the kind of score which, in the old days, would have been released as a concept/cast album and people would have got to know the tunes before seeing the show.
This is as good as good old fashioned musicals get these days. It asks nothing of the audience except to go with the flow. And if you do, while your belief is suspended, you will have many a laugh and a pretty good time.
Well worth seeing.