You think they just don’t make ’em like they used to? To find out how wrong you are, head to Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre for a couple of hours of finger-snapping, tap-dancing, hip-swiveling, Elvis-impersonating, night-club crooning fun. That’s what the musical adaptation of Honeymoon In Vegas promises and what it delivers, courtesy of an ingratiating performance by Tony Danza in the role created onscreen by James Caan, along with some very energetic assistance from co-stars Rob McClure, Brynn O’Malley and a phalanx of parachuting Kings.
This show is the love child of Andrew Bergman—who wrote and directed the 1992 comedy that also starred Nicolas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker—and the wildly talented composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown. This is Brown’s second film-to-musical adaptation in as many years, after The Bridges Of Madison County, which flopped on Broadway last season despite a lovely score. (Brown also has a transition in the opposite direction, as his terrific song cycle The Last Five Years opens next month as a feature film from Richard LaGravanese starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan.)
Brown works in two modes: dark and brooding (Bridges; that was the problem) and smart-ass sophisticated (which is, thankfully, the case with Honeymoon). The show opens outside a Brooklyn subway stop where Jack (McClure, a superb triple-threat who was better than his last showcase, the musical Chaplin) sets the scene by announcing to the motley crowd of passersby that for all its irresistible charms, New York City comes second to his love for girlfriend Betsy (O’Malley). “I like Shake Shack, I like MoMA/And New Jersey’s ripe aroma,” Jack sings. “Just like Jay-Z and Beyoncé/I will make her my fiancée. I love Betsy!”
Indulgent Betsy’s been cooling her heels for five years while Jack works through his Monster Mommy (Nancy Opel) issues (her deathbed command was that he never marry). Screwing his courage to the subway post, Jack promises to finally say “I do” in Vegas. There they run into smooth-talking card sharp Tommy Korman (Danza), who instantly pegs Jack for the easy mark that he is, while falling for Betsy, a ringer for his late wife, who broasted in the Nevada sun. Some $58,000 in the hole later, Jack agrees to let lovestruck Tommy take Betsy to Hawaii for a chaste (ha ha) weekend in exchange for keeping his kneecaps. Honestly? Don’t think about it too hard or your brain will hurt.
Jason Robert Brown is terrifically talented but he’s no Frank Loesser, and despite some uncomfortable parallels (the Gotham love affair, the gambling milieu, the romantic weekend at an island paradise) Honeymoon In Vegas is no Guys & Dolls. (C’mon. What is?) And the commercial producers have made a few big mistakes in the transfer to Broadway from the quaint Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, where it earned rave reviews from the New York critics.
The Nederlander Theater on grim West 41st Street was comfortably home to Rent for more than a decade; it’s not right for a family show like this. The sound has been brightened and the volume pumped, so that what was a polished swing band now sounds canned and harsh. Most important, the show has been struggling through weeks of poorly-attended previews that began before Thanksgiving, when it ought to have opened right away. By the time we saw it again, the cast seemed at once desperate to please and worn out. The biggest toll was taken on Danza, the ebullient Taxi and Who’s The Boss star. He has a Sinatra-like stage presence, but in truth he’s Sinatra’s opposite: Warm, not cool; needy, not detached. Those aren’t necessarily bad things, but at the critic’s preview Danza’s voice was pretty well shot and his dancing was unsteady. The guy needs a break and he’s just out of the starting gate.
O’Malley is good as Betsy, but not more so; the role cries for star quality that’s lacking here. The balance of the show has gone much more in McClure’s favor, and that’s not a bad thing either: He’s a gifted clown, never more so than in the scene where Jack hitches a ride with the flying Elvises in order to get back to Vegas and save the day. It’s staged with crack sitcom smoothness by director Gary Griffin, and by the time the whole thing is over, you’ve forgiven Tommy and Jack for their sins, even if you reserve judgment on Bergman and Brown for the way women are treated in the show. You’ll even forgive yourself for enjoying the ride. Admit it: You had a great time.