Review: A Bloated ‘Honeymooners’ at the Paper Mill Playhouse
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, October 11, 2017
They don’t write ‘em like this any more. For good reason.
As any Baby Boomer knows, “The Honeymooners” was a short-lived but nonetheless enduring sitcom from the mid 1950s starring Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, and Audrey Meadows. Although the show only lasted one season, the show has been immortalized through syndication. Given the modern theater’s proclivity for catering to Boomer nostalgia, it was perhaps only a matter of time before someone gave “The Honeymooners” the musical treatment.
The Honeymooners: A New Musical Comedy opened this past weekend at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, and the result is a pander-fest of a musical that would have been considered unwieldy and old-fashioned even while the TV show was running.
The goal here seems to have been to give the show’s fan base what they want without much in the way of surprise or innovation. In addition to all the expected catch phrases (“Alice, you’re the greatest,” “Pow, right in the kisser,” and even a song titled “To the Moon”), we have various iconic set pieces from the show, including a superfluous scene in Ralph and Ed’s fictional fraternal organization, the Raccoon Lodge.
If the creators had just stuck to that indulgent mission, they might actually have had something. Instead, they have seen fit to blow the show up into a Broadway extravaganza replete with ponderous production numbers that add little to the show except to its excessive length (two hours and forty minutes, with intermission). The book by Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss is at its best when it winningly captures the whiz-bang humor of the TV show, but at its worst when it’s trying to stretch a humble TV show into a Broadway behemoth.
You really can’t expect a throwback of a show like The Honeymooners to reinvent the form, but is it too much to ask for a reasonably melodic score? Stephen Weiner’s music features not one single memorable melody, and rarely rises above the mere serviceable. Peter Mills’ lyrics are actually pretty solid, showing a fair amount of craft and occasional inspiration, and there are a few songs in the score that actually deepen the characterizations and give the show a sense of period charm.
Director John Rando and choreographer Joshua Bergasse worked wonders with the recent Broadway revival of On the Town, but there they were working with a show that had more of a unified vision, and more justification for its many dance sequences. Here, you can practically hear the strain of their efforts to justify the presence of the mostly unnecessary dancing chorus of sewer workers, bus drivers, and advertising execs.
It’s shame that the show doesn’t focus more on its central quartet, because the casting here is absolute perfection: Tony-winner Mike McGrath as Ralph Kramden, the always reliable Leslie Kritzer as Alice Kramden, Michael Mastro as Ed Norton, and, surprisingly, Laura Bell Bundy as Trixie Norton. McGrath and Kritzer not only capture the appeal of the original stars, they add their own layers of believability and warmth.
Mastro is wonderfully spot-on as Norton, with a powerful singing voice and a layered comic characterization that makes me wonder why I don’t recall having encountered him on stage before. And Bundy shows much more depth and nuance than one might expect from her past performances in Legally Blonde and Hairspray. She actually makes Trixie a believably trashy but nonetheless sympathetic person.
Clearly, there’s an audience out there for a show like this, if the response of the opening night audience is any indication. But if The Honeymooners is going to have a future, the creators will need to break out the editing knife, cut about 20 minutes out, and bring the focus back to the four central characters. Therein lay the appeal of the TV show, and therein lies whatever appeal there might be in its musical treatment.
The Honeymooners (world premiere) presented at the Papermill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Milburn, NJ. Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission; through October 29, 2017. Book by Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss, music by Stephen Weiner, and lyrics by Peter Mills, based on the CBS television series. Directed by John Rando; choreography by Joshua Bergasse; set design by Beowulf Boritt; costume design by Jess Goldstein; lighting design by Jason Lyons; sound design by Kai Harada; hair, wig and makeup design by Leah J. Loukas; musical direction and vocal arrangements by Remy Kurs; orchestrations by Doug Besterman and dance arrangements by Sam Davis.
Cast: Michael McGrath (as “Ralph Kramden”), Michael Mastro (as “Ed Norton”), Leslie Kritzer (as “Alice Kramden”), Laura Bell Bundy (as “Trixie Norton”), Lewis Cleale (as “Bryce Bennett”), Lewis J. Stadlen (as “Old Man Faciamatta”), and David Wohl (as “Allen Upshaw”) with 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.
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Cover: (l. to r.) Michael Mastro (Norton), Laura Bell Bundy (Trixie), Leslie Kritzer (Alice) and Michael McGrath (Ralph) in ‘The Honeymooners;’ photo: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.