Loyal members of the Jason Robert Brown fan club might still be rubbing their eyes in disbelief that the composer, typically associated with unconventional melodies and introspective lyrics, has taken on Andrew Bergman's feel-good comedic film, Honeymoon in Vegas, as his newest musical venture, currently premiering at Paper Mill Playhouse. As the man who musically dramatized the 1913 murder trial of Leo Frank in Parade (for which he won a Tony Award), and who brought the story of his own crumbling marriage to the stage through the avant-garde two-person musical The Last Five Years (earning him a Drama Desk Award), Brown has never seemed an artist destined for flashy dance numbers and skydiving Elvises. Yet, these humanistic sensibilities have proven to be his greatest asset in transforming relatively thin original material into a joyfully robust musical.
With Bergman (the film's writer and director) as librettist, the plot remains largely faithful to the original screenplay, with the added bonus of an incredible group of jazz musicians (led by Tom Murray) who, thankfully, are given their due time onstage rather than being hidden in the cave that is typically an orchestra pit.
Jack Singer (played by Tony nominee Rob McClure) and his girlfriend of five years, Betsy Nolan (Brynn O'Malley), are blissfully in love. Unfortunately, Jack's mother's dying wish that he never marry perpetually haunts him, preventing the two from tying the final knot in their otherwise perfect relationship. Ask any Bar Mitzvah boy…Jewish guilt can place a powerful and lasting curse.
We get our first taste of set designer Anna Louizos' creative staging as the inside of a Tiffany & Co. jewelry store transforms into a dreamlike hospital room where Nancy Opel channels Grandma Tzeitel as she throws down this initial gauntlet. When Betsy presents Jack with an ultimatum, the pair heads off to Vegas to get hitched the all-American way. However, after the smooth-talking, middle-aged mafioso Tommy Korman (Tony Danza) sets his sights on Betsy, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his late wife, he swindles Jack into betting big — and losing big — on a premarital poker game. Luckily, Tommy offers to wipe Jack's debt clean if he offers up the company of his affianced for the weekend.
The new script, paired with Brown's score — a combination of high-energy ensemble numbers and Brown's signature poignant ballads — adds meat to the sparse film, whose characters, though charming, are largely underdeveloped. McClure's Jack Singer is much more endearing than the whiny nebbish Nicholas Cage originally portrayed, making the out-of-his-league Betsy's attraction to him far more believable onstage than on screen (Sarah Jessica Parker played Betsy opposite Cage in the film). McClure's tremendous ability as a physical performer, which earned him a Tony nomination for his portrayal of the iconic Charlie Chaplin this past season, imbues his character with an added charm that only musical theater can afford. Betsy, meanwhile, is given far more spunk, holding a slightly-more-fitting grudge against Jack for all but whoring her out to a potentially dangerous stranger to absolve him of his gambling debt. The feminists in the audience may not be completely won over by her ultimate stand-by-my-man attitude, but they won't be as fast to throw fruit.
They may, however (at least briefly), root for the potentially dangerous stranger. Even at 62, the ever-charming Tony Danza puts up a strong fight for the half-his-age girl with a voice that is admittedly not perfect but offers a sentimental throwback to the days of crooners like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. He may not have the same naturally authoritative power as James Caan, who played Korman in the film, but very few other contemporary performers can radiate his Italian charm while delivering a song and a soft-shoe.
Gary Griffin's grounded direction of these main characters gives the production the permission it needs to soar into the ridiculous realms any musical set in Las Vegas is bound to go. Costume designer Brian Hemesath goes to town with a plethora of Vegas-inspired costumes, from showgirl ensembles to a team of Elvis getups (David Josefsberg handily leads the Elvises as Roy Bacon, paying homage to the cheesy Vegas performers of yore).
As the colorful performers move through Denis Jones' debonair choreography, we're brought back to the days of the old-fashioned musical, where performers unabashedly strut their stuff and simple entertainment is the thing. Even for those who typically try to resist the pull of their "populist" urges, Honeymoon in Vegas may serve to remind us all of the magic that can happen when populism is done right.