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“Honeymoon in Vegas” Brings Fun, Farce, and Fourth-Wall Breaking to Broadway

Sometimes, Broadway producers decide they need to turn a long forgotten movie into a musical. To do so, they usually rope in talented composers and lyricists to cobble together some songs.  And to really seal the deal, they hire someone famous (anyone famous, it seems) to entice ticket buyers and make theatergoers wonder: can so-and-so really pull it off?

Honeymoon in Vegas, now playing at the Nederlander Theatre does all of the above, and succeeds so well you almost forget all the times Broadway has gotten it wrong. Based on the 1992 film, Honeymoon in Vegas has music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (our very own 21st-century Sondheim) and stars American sweetheart Tony Danza. It’s a complex equation, but one that makes a fantastic musical. Let me count the ways:

1) The storyline is perfect for a madcap musical.

Honeymoon in Vegas begins with a silly premise: that Jack (Rob McClure) can’t marry his long-suffering girlfriend Betsy (Brynn O’Malley) because his mother (Nancy Opel) cursed him on her death bed. When Betsy confesses that she isn’t sure if she can stay in the relationship without commitment (“Anywhere But Here”), Jack decides that they’ll elope in Vegas. But when high-rolling gambler Tommy (Tony Danza) sees that Betsy looks just like his deceased wife, he’ll do anything to break up the engagement.

Yes, this is the plot of the show. It relies on weird coincidences, family curses, and some good old-fashioned sexism. (No, Tony Danza, “stealing” a woman from another man like a prize farm animal is bad, and you should feel bad.) But those ridiculous elements make up an excellent farce that would have Moliere laughing in his powdered wig. Not only does Honeymoon in Vegas (with a book by Andrew Bergman and direction by Gary Griffin) have impeccable comedic timing, but it also has well developed characters whose actions always have logical reasons. Even better, they aren’t afraid to point out how wacky things are getting. When Betsy spurns Jack to spend a weekend with Tommy, she does it out of anger for Jack’s continuing hesitance to be married. She also points out to Tommy that this is a “crazy arrangement,” aware of the unusual circumstances she’s experiencing.

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A troupe of parachuting Elvises, providing more unusual circumstances and a rousing eleven o’clock number.

What makes Honeymoon in Vegas even more complex and enjoyable is its awareness of the audience. In “I Love Betsy,” Jack sings, “I like Broadway (once a year),” a fun aside for theatergoers. Later in the show, while Tommy is singing and dancing in front of a golden curtain, his henchman (Matthew Saldivar) enters and looks up confusingly at the the glitzy set piece. This doesn’t stop him from joining the number and singing in perfect harmony, though.

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I mean, who could resist the allure of a musical number?

2) Jason Robert Brown can do commercial oh-so-well.

Known for writing heart-wrenching musicals like Parade, The Last Five Years, and most recently The Bridges of Madison County, Jason Robert Brown is the widely known as the musical writer who makes you cry.

This is what Jason Robert Brown does to his characters. (Source: Daily Mail UK)

I had wondered how Jason Robert Brown was going to handle the music and lyrics to Honeymoon in Vegas, a story that doesn’t resemble his usual work. As it turns out, he’s ace at it, from catchy up-tempo numbers like “I Love Betsy” and “Friki-Friki” to sweeter fare like “You Made the Wait Worthwhile.” There’s even a “classic” JRB song in the mix (and of course, it’s my favorite): “Anywhere But Here,” Betsy’s soaring solo where she needs more from her relationship with Jack. Honeymoon in Vegas has one of the best original scores Broadway has seen in a long time, and I look forward to seeing what else Jason Robert Brown has up his composer and lyricist sleeves.

3) Tony Danza and the cast are incredibly charming.

Now an amazingly written and directed musical is all well and good, but you don’t have actors who can sell it, it can still fall flat. Luckily, the cast of Honeymoon in Vegas has talent and charisma for ages. Rob McClure (my new Broadway crush), is adorable as hapless Jack, bringing boundless energy into the role. Brynn O’Malley is definitely enjoying herself as Betsy, and it shows. She tries to be calm throughout the madness, but sometimes she can’t help having fun, downing drinks and trying on wedding dresses in “Betsy’s Getting Married.”

And Tony Danza, the celebrity in our Broadway production equation, is a perfect addition to the show. He can sing. He can act. He also wows the audience in a tap number, and delights them when playing the ukelele. While he does it all, it’s with a knowing smile, the consummate showman throughout his performance.

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Tony Danza, being charming as hell.

So if you haven’t seen Honeymoon in Vegas, you totally should. Broadway’s made a gamble that might just pay off.

All in the Timing at 59E59

 

Last year’s mind-blowing Venus in Fur turned me onto David Ives’s work and All in the Timing just happens to be an early and well-lauded example. My limited knowledge of Ives’s plays shows that his affinity for language is more than just the advantage of a wordsmith– it’s a deeply rooted fascination with its fickle and reproductive nature. In Venus in Fur, a play’s text brings together past and present in an eerie, karma-esque revisitation of gender relations.

All in the Timing, a collection of short plays,  is a more overt examination of the nature of language. There’s it randomness– the idea that at any given point in time, what we say will produce ripple effects that we have no control over. See the first short play, ‘Sure Thing’, in which one potential couple’s conversation veers into an extraordinary amount of alternate directions. See also, ‘Universal Language,’ in which the arbitrary words of a made-up language somehow make sense to us, an English-speaking language, and actually results in a friendship/romance between two lonely speakers.

In many ways, there’s a sort of rejoicing in the fact that we do not control our own means of communications. There’s a sort of ease, a letting-go, that we can only do our best to say what we mean and ‘time’ it as best as possible. (I’ve been reading Sarah Blakewell’s Life of Montaigne and Montaigne’s skeptic ideas are growing on me.)

There’s also the idea that storytelling and language is innate without regard to the words you actually are using. In ‘Universal Language,’ love becomes the universal. Shakespeare, as well as some Marxist core principles, are recurring presences in the stories (among others). Does Ives mean to suggest that some things are innate, almost archetypal, even for the monkeys (Kafka, Swift, and Milton) in ‘Words, Words, Words.’ Would Hamlet have been a different story, held a different meaning, if it were produced by monkeys? Written in another time period? Under different conditions? Does it even matter?

The first act is full of these puzzling ideas, which takes place right along some excellent comedy. The second act was much less stirring and much more dependent on superficial gags and weird jokes about Philadelphia. Obviously, there were a still plenty of laughs. And I won’t hesitate to mention that “Variations on the Death of Trotsky” brought a tear or two (or three) to my eye.

Overall, I’m keeping my radar on for more of Ives works.

Just a quick nota bene: If y’all liked this, read Caryl Churchill’s Blue Heart, which examines problems of lying and language in ways similar to ‘Sure Thing’ and ‘Universal Language.’ Except, I might argue, a bit more powerfully.

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