Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Theater Review: The Honeymooners -- Paper Mill Playhouse

Michael Mastro, Laura Bell Bundy, Leslie Kritzer, and Michael McGrath Evan Zimmerman
The Honeymooners
Book by Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss, based on the CBS television series
Music by Stephen Weiner
Lyrics by Peter Mills
Choreography by Joshua Bergasse 
Musical Direction and Vocal Arrangements by Remy Kurs
Directed by John Rando
Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, NJ
Through Oct. 19

By Lauren Yarger
If you're a fan of the classic TV series "The Honeymooners," which featured Art Carney, Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph along with the biggest comedian of the era, Jackie Gleason, who uttered catch phrases like, "To the moon, Alice," "Har har, hardee har har" and "I've got a big mouth" among others, you will thoroughly enjoy the new musical version of the sitcom getting its world premiere in New Jersey at the Paper Mill Playhouse.

If you have never heard of the Kramdens and the Nortons (the two couples who are best friends and neighbors in CBS's 1950 series) you might be scratching your head and wondering what the heck is going on.

Though many Baby Boomers enjoyed this show and will list it among their favorites (even though it only ran for 39 episodes following its debut and subsequent revisiting in sketch form on Gleason's variety shows), I never cared for it and there is a good chance that anyone under the age of 45 probably has never seen it.  The series followed the pie-in-the sky antics of Ralph Kramden (Gleason), a bus driver in Brooklyn, who was always trying to find a quick-money scheme to achieve his dream of living on easy street. He usually dragged his best friend, Ed Norton (Carney), along with him, paying no heed to the unenthusiastic, practical advice to the contrary given by his wife, Alice (Meadows). 

When I saw that one of my favorite musical writing teams (Stephen Weiner and Peter Mills) were on the Honeymooners musical, I knew I would want to see it (even thought I don't normally get out to Paper Mill), but realized I was hesitant because I really, really didn't like that show. 

Why not, I thought? It admittedly contained some comedy bits that are quite funny (Ed's enthusiastic watching of the "Captain Video" kids' television show is a classic). As I thought about it, I realized that I had been offended, even as a kid, by a husband threatening to hit his wife. Ralph's recurring shout of "bang zoom" promising to send Alice to the moon and the secondary threat of  "one of these days, Alice, pow! right in the kisser" frightened me and I didn't think it was funny. Nor did I like Alice's silent, sad-faced acceptance of these threats, even though Ralph usually came around and apologized, and told her she was the greatest.

Enter book writers Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss who have softened these threats for the musical and have given Alice (played by the multi-talented comedic genius Leslie Kritzer) some backbone. She even gets a solo that lets her belt and scat about how "A Woman's Work" really gets done.  She stopped the show. Director John Rando makes sure there isn't a physical depiction of the violence Ralph threatens which helps tone down these unpleasant, if iconic elements, and Ralph is a bit easier to like here, thanks to a tour-de-force impersonation by Michael McGrath. 

One of the pure joys of this musical is watching McGrath and Michael Mastro channel Gleason and Carney. They look and sound like the recognizable actors into whose shoes they have stepped. They do such a good job bringing the originals to life, that a plot twist later in the musical, where Ralph and Ed meet the real Gleason and Carney, falls short because unfairly, the second set of actors don't stand a chance of appearing more like the original characters (this is one turn that should be eliminated as the story goes off on a tangent; cutting the three-hour run time will help too if this musical is eyeing Broadway).

Otherwise, the book is entertaining and advances what used to be virtually the same plot in every TV episode to a more fully developed story that can hold its own in a full musical production. Even Trixie (Laura Bell Bundy, who sounded like she might be fighting a cold the night I saw the show) gets some development as she resumes her career as a burlesque dancer (apparently this was mentioned in a lost episode, but that career was considered too risqué for 1950s television). This allows for a subplot for a jealous confrontation between Ed and her former club manager.

I savored, as always, Mills' clever lyrics (his and Weiner's collaboration on Iron Curtain, with a book by Susan Di Lallo, is one of my favorite musicals that hasn't made it to Broadway yet.) 

"He's a local who’s going express," the male chorus sings as Ralph thinks he has a future on Madison Avenue after writing a cheesy advertising jingle for the Faciamatta brand of dairy product.

Make-you-laugh lyrics by Mills pepper the score. Weiner writes some of the big-production type numbers he does so well (and Choreographer Joshua Bergasse has fun bringing to life a huge, fantasy tap sequence), but none of the songs stands out. The most moving is a duet between Ralph and Ed called "I'll Miss the Guy," but there aren't any tunes you come away humming.

Set Designer Beowulf Boritt remains true to the original set by recreating the Kramdens' shabby kitchen in which all of the television episodes were filmed. He adds a stunning backdrop of the city skyline with the trademark moon as well.  There is much here that satisfies and I found myself enjoying The Honeymooners for the first time. A heads up to producers, though: with Russia so prominently in the news these days, Iron Curtain might be the one to bring to Broadway first.


 

Additional casting:
Lewis Cleale as Bryce Bennett, Lewis J. Stadlen as Old Man Faciamatta and David Wohl as Allen Upshaw. 

Holly Ann Butler, Chris Dwan, Hannah Florence, Tessa Grady, Stacey Todd Holt, Ryan Kasprzak, Drew King, Eloise Kropp, Harris Milgrim, Justin Prescott, Lance Roberts, Jeffrey Schecter, Britton Smith, Alison Solomon, Michael Walters and Kevin Worley, Ensemble

The Honeymooners runs through Oct. 19 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ. Performances are Wednesday at 7:30 pm, Thursday at 1:30 and 7:30 pm, Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 1:30 and 8 pm; Sunday at 1:30 and 7:30 pm. Tickets start at $34: PaperMill.org; 973-376-4343.

FAMILY-FRIENDLY FACTORS:
-- Some scantily-clad show girls

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

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All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

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I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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