Even those who are favorably inclined toward nostalgic recreations of beloved TV shows will find their affections tested in “The Honeymooners,” the lumbering, scattershot musical premiering at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Musical stage adaptations of TV sitcoms have had a history of disappointing at-bats (“Happy Days,” “The Addams Family”) and this outing — which has been in development for several years — won’t do anything to change the stats.
Based on the ’50s TV series that starred Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden, the Brooklyn bus driver with dreams of striking it rich, the musical rarely transcends its loopy sitcom sensibility, familiar comic setpieces and syrupy-simple sentiment. Though the hardworking cast conjures a reasonable replica of the sui generis originals, this is a show that evokes not so much the classic sitcom — which ran from 1955 to ’56 — but its television revival 10 years later, when Gleason turned the episodes into mini-musicals for his Miami-based variety show.
“Mini” is the operative word, with the savvy Gleason knowing that Ralph and his sewer-man pal Ed Norton, their endlessly patient wives Alice and Trixie and the show’s thin plots are best taken in sketch-length doses.
But for this musical, book writers Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss go maxi, creating a meandering and seemingly endless storyline, including dream sequences and flashbacks, that has Ralph (Michael McGrath) and Ed (Michael Mastro) winning a jingle contest for an Italian cheese and subsequently getting hired by a big time Madison Avenue ad agency.
The plot is convoluted, padded and eventually tiresome as the show clocks in at more than two and a half hours. Kay and Nuss not-so-deftly stuff catchphrase-filled dialogue and iconography from the series into the scenes, eliciting applause from loyal Kramdenites in the audience. Other appropriations include some “How to Succeed” bits — that don’t. But most problematic is the careless, awkward writing.
For instance, Ralph’s winning jingle lyrics seem no worse than the ones the professionals replace them with (while keeping Ed’s music) — a pivotal plot point. There’s also a fuzzy subplot involving Trixie (Laura Bell Bundy), who in this version is a former stripper. (Cue spit-take for the surviving original “Honeymooner,” Joyce Randolph, if she sees it). An oblique save in the end of the show by Alice (Leslie Kritzer) just underscores the muddiness of what should be a lean, tight, comic storyline.
The pleasant but generic tunes by Stephen Weiner and Peter Mills also add little. (Does the show really need two dance numbers starring a fleet of bus drivers?) Only one song really lands a bull’s-eye: A terrific Kritzer, who adds warmth to her stage character without diluting Alice’s comic deadpan, lets loose and sings — and even scat-sings — about “A Woman’s Work.” There’s also the ensemble number “Infine la Felicita” led by Lewis J. Stadlen, who gives the show some welcome, old-time vaudeville shtick as Old Man Faciamatta, the big cheese of a sponsor.
McGrath is spot-on as Ralph, nicely evoking Gleason’s braggadocio, bluster and soft underside. A strong-voiced Mastro brings musical oomph to Norton’s repertoire of eccentric ticks. And though Trixie’s number is a swipe from the Hot Box chorus in “Guys and Dolls,” Bundy makes her character lovely and likable in the always-underwritten role.
It’s only when the musical turns “meta” at show’s end with the introduction of two new characters does the tuner strike a spark of originality and playfulness that it otherwise lacks. But it comes too little, too late for a show that aspires to shoot for the moon but only circles itself.
Regional Theater Review: ‘The Honeymooners,’ The Musical
Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, N.J.; 1,200 seats; $137 top; opened, reviewed Oct. 8, 2017; runs through Oct. 29; Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.
A Paper Mill Playhouse presentation of a musical in two acts with book by Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss; music by Stephen Weiner; lyrics by Peter Mills.
Directed by John Rando; choreography, Joshua Bergasse ; sets, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Jason Lyons; sound, Kai Harada; musical direction and vocal arrangements, Remy Kurs; orchestrations, Doug Besterman; dance arrangements, Sam Davis; production stage manager, Timothy R. Semon.
Michael McGrath, Michael Mastro, Leslie Kritzer, Laura Bell Bundy, Lewis Cleale, Lewis J. Stadlen, David Wohl, Chris Dwan, Michael L. Walters, Jeffrey Schecter, Kevin Worley, Holly Ann Butler, Hannah Florence, Tessa Grady, Stacey Todd Holt, Ryan Kasprzak, Drew King, Eloise Kropp, Harris Milgrim, Justin Prescott, Lance Roberts, Britton Smith, Alison Solomon,