When I first saw Honeymoon in Vegas at the Paper Mill Playhouse where it debuted last season, I was highly enthusiastic. I never wrote a formal review, but I posted on the Aisle Say home page that the creative and production team did everything right.
Having seen it again on Broadway at the Nederlander, I’m still highly enthusiastic…but my feeling has changed a little, from “everything right” to “everything as right as they could make it.”
I’m not sure about what happened between the two engagements in any sense but an alchemical one, for the show is essentially the same; material-wise, it’s a little tighter, but that’s all to the good; it has lost nothing vital. And the same production, just adapted to fit the new space. But that weird alchemy of physical space may have been crucial in a way nobody can have predicted. I’ll try to make sense of that.
Without spoiling too much, the story is about Jack Singer (Rob McClure), in love with fiancé Betsy Nolan (Brynn O’Malley) but haunted by the curse of his dead, domineering mother Bea (Nancy Opel) who, on her deathbed, promised disaster if he should ever marry. No matter what he does, the memory renders him wussified; so on impulse he decides to make things right—get the hell away from New York, fly him and Betsy to Vegas and marry there. Upon arrival and getting their room, things seem to be going well, except that Betsy has caught the attention of pro gambler and casino owner Tommy Korman (Tony Danza), because she’s the dead ringer of his late wife; and Korman believes having Betsy would be like having his wife back. So he sets plans in motion to get Jack out of the way…
The show features what is arguably composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown’s best, and certainly most accessible, score—in honor of the settings (which will also include Hawaii) and extreme characters, its vocabulary is all about having fun with familiar tropes—and librettist Andrew Bergman has adapted his 1992 screenplay handily, and with appropriate unsentimental daffiness. This is top-drawer musical comedy, unequivocal and straight up.
At Paper Mill, simply because the physical stage space is bigger, HiV (yes, I know, unfortunate acronym; pronounce it HIGH-vee) was a physically bigger show, just for being a bit wider, a bit deeper, having (I am told) a few more bodies in the chorus, and, because of the relationship of the proscenium to the audience, a bit further removed from the audience.
At the Nederlander, HiV is smaller. Less wide, less deep, physically more compressed and intimately there with you.
I am told that, in talking about his work on Legally Blonde: The Musical, that show's director, Jerry Mitchell, claimed that an all-important key was to keep the narrative moving so that you didn’t have too much time to think about it. In large measure because the heroine never stopped pursuing her goal; she was a relentless motor.
At Paper Mill, somehow, under Gary Griffins’s smart, sharp direction, you likewise didn’t think about the story much; you just went with it. I cannot say why for certain, but I think that had to do with an illusion of spectacle (the show is very good at satisfactorily evoking the glitz of Vegas without actually delivering it) and, as I say a bit more physical distance. One might argue—and it would be an argument—that the experience didn't require you to care as much, just enjoy. (I suppose one also can't discount the understandable jingoism of the local New Jersey audience; Paper Mill's usual fare consists of standards remounted—only very recently has it been home to one or two shows per season with a real shot at Broadway—and a deserving world premiere in your backyard generates infectious excitement.)
At the Nederlander, though, I think because the more intimate setting asks for concern, narrative things that haven't changed at all, now give you pause. For example: Even though Betsy looks like the gambler’s dead wife, it’s a stretch that he believes being married to her will be the equivalent experience, and indeed a reconnection. And as for our hero, Jack…without spoilers, he makes himself far too easy a target for Tommy. That he’ll be made vulnerable, and how, is inevitable, and the difficult truth there is, he's never under any compulsion to be a target in the first place; he has to clearly choose (make several clear choices, in fact) to put himself in that position. And then, once victimized, he has essentially lost his manhood, because now Betsy’s in a compromised position, Tommy can make his moves, and Jack can only watch.
Which means he stops driving the show. And he’s lost his right to your sympathy. He is, in fact, the hapless schmuck he claims to be in the opening number (in the context of “I’m a schmuck but Betsy loves me,” which delivers the thought as agreeable self-deprecation, which is why you don’t count it against him yet; being loved despite your flaws taps into a universal sense of wonder that most of us, if we’re lucky, identify with.) If you still like him after the betrayal, it’s only because Rob McClure is so damn charming, and the material, if you’re on board with the tone, maintains its “funny.”
At the end of the first act, he’s ready to take action; but he still has little power to do anything (other than indulge the surge of desperate energy that takes him to the airport) until the middle of act two; nor does he completely get his balls back until an act of stupid courage as we head toward endgame. (That the act one closing number is called "Do Something" is an unintentional structural irony.)
The audience doesn’t really understand most of this at a conscious level…but you can feel them feeling that something is amiss. And what it turns out to be is this: the musical theatre form's natural resistance to maintaining a narrative in which your main character is a milquetoast. Because, you see, there’s only one journey for a milquetoast to take: he has to learn to defend himself and claim (or reclaim) his manhood. Which means that either he starts out as a wuss, or trying not to be the wuss he is, and failing. And once he fails—out of weakness or fear—he’s a victim; and victimization is a passive state. (What makes that not readily apparent is that Jack's neuroses are active—and substantial. An audience has to be willing to swap that in for genuine forward motion. As to the audiences attending Honeymoon in Vegas: some will; some won't. The machinery can't be made foolproof.)
The problem, therefore, is not with the adaptation, which couldn’t be more skillful. It’s with the source material itself. Though ironically the source material doesn’t resist musicalization, because its characters are large enough to take on song as a natural mode of expression, the plot is loony enough for musical comedy, and deconstructing it into component parts, it gives you plenty to sing about.
It just doesn’t have the alchemy that only an active, driven main character can catalyze. Be he (or she) righteous, villainous, virtuous-but-flawed, self-absorbed, struggling to adapt, whatever…as long as there’s always active pursuit of something, the creative team’s artistry and craft will almost always take the audience the rest of the way. But when that’s absent, not all the artistry and craft in the world can turn your hero into someone they want to follow.
As to Jack Singer of Honeymoon in Vegas, he gets you on his ride for a while, then loses your sympathy. At that point the show’s effectiveness depends entirely upon your personal sensibility and taste—whether or not you’ll feel compensated by the wackiness of the storytelling.
And that, alas, is a Vegas-worthy roll of the dice…
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