|Michael Mastro, Laura Bell Bundy, Leslie Kritzer, and Michael McGrath Evan Zimmerman|
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.
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.
-- Some scantily-clad show girls