Leslie Kritzer and Michael McGrath in”The Honeymooners.” (Photo: Jerry Dalia via The Broadway Blog.)
By Ryan Leeds
The producers and creative team of The Honeymooners musical are likely eyeing the Great White Way as their next stop. Currently, this good old-fashioned tuner is making its world premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Based on the black and white television classic of the same name, the show chronicles the hair-brained schemes of Ralph Kramden and his best friend, Ed Norton. Meanwhile, their wives, Alice and Trixie, respectively, “stand by their men” and pick up the pieces when one ill-fated idea after another goes south.
The show, which ran on CBS for 39 episodes in the 1950s, offered simple plot lines and incomparable physical comedy. Consequently, it managed to win the hearts of viewers and indelibly leave an imprint into popular culture.
It’s a risky gamble to bet that the show will have staying power on Broadway. Younger generations are not as familiar with the brand and it lacks the serious edginess that has recently become trendier in contemporary musical theater.
For now, though, the artists behind this new musical should take a bow. If Sunday’s enthusiastic opening night audience was any indication of approval, tri-state residents are in for a bonafide treat.
I was curious how the show would work in a full-length format. In sitcom world, problems are presented and solved in 30 minutes and let’s face it—plotlines rarely had the gravity of life or death. Book writers Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss, along with lyricist Peter Mills have managed to maintain the lighthearted structure of the television show. With the help of composer Stephen Weiner, they have stretched an uncomplicated plot into a two hour and forty minute joy ride that is pure fun from start to finish.
In this “episode”, bus driver Ralph (Michael McGrath) and sewage laborer Ed (Michael Mastro) enter (and win) a jingle contest for one their favorite snacks, Faciamatta Mazzeroni’s cheese. It catapults them from the blue collar world of Brooklyn to the white collar, Madison Avenue offices of Upshaw and Young—an upscale advertising agency with slick executives and a generous salary. Finally, their cramped apartments in the outer borough will be replaced with luxury pads on Manhattan’s Park Avenue. Dramatic tensions ensue but in true Hollywood fashion, the Kramdens and Nortons live happily ever after.
Weiner and Mills have created a marvelous score with a classic sound. The jazz-infused show tunes are often reminiscent of the Frank Loesser hits Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Elements of The Producers also appear, particularly in “Infine la Felicita”, a sweeping stereotype of Italian culture. It may be over the top, but since the show is already cartoonish in nature, it is easily forgivable.
A recent feature in the New York Times stated that the writers wanted to give the show a contemporary worldview. They have carefully managed to achieve it. It would be easy to write-off both versions of The Honeymooners as male-dominated, chauvinistic misogyny. Ralph is intent on being “King of the Castle” and continually threatens to send Alice “to the moon.” In spite of that, Alice (Leslie Kritzer) and Trixie (Laura Bell Bundy) prove their mettle by standing up to the men in their lives and ultimately hatching a plan to get their husbands out of trouble. Alice’s determined anthem, “A Woman’s Work,” literally stopped the show on opening night.
Director John Rando, along with casting director Patrick Goodwin of Telsey + Company, could not have brought together a finer acting company. Rando brings the iconic characters to life in a way which captures their essence but is not a blatant imitation. He also floods the stage with a mighty talented ensemble, each of whom executes Joshua Bergasse’s exciting choreography with verve and finesse.
Longtime fans of the show will find the musical a warm and funny dose of nostalgia. Even newcomers will be smitten by this sweet, charming valentine to classic television. With newspaper headlines blasting natural disasters, violence, and temper tantrums between world leaders, this “trip to the moon” provides a much-needed escape.
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
Through October 29
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or Facebook.