Ralph Kramden makes his stage debut at Paper Mill Playhouse.
In 1955, there wasn't much cause for concern asking audiences to root for the romance between a blowhard who likes to threaten domestic abuse and his homemaker wife who makes sassy quips but ultimately stands by her man. The basic building blocks of The Honeymooners look much dicier today, perhaps the reason it took several years of writing and workshopping to finally bring the new musical adaptation to its feet. Fortunately, the show seems to have gotten its sea legs in time for its world premiere at Paper Mill Playhouse, walking the razor-thin tightrope between nostalgia and progress while balancing characters as broad as Ralph Kramden's waistline.
And speaking of waistline, Michael McGrath has some big pants to fill as the first actor tasked with mimicking the work of comic genius Jackie Gleason. Aside from the buckets of perspiration brought on by the merciless but always exciting choreographer Joshua Bergasse, McGrath seems to never break a sweat balancing his homage to Gleason with his own version of the lovable windbag. The whole central quartet is cast to perfection: Michael Mastro nails Art Carney's physical comedy as Ralph's sewer-working best bud Ed Norton (and is an eerily close doppelgänger); Leslie Kritzer fills out Alice's wry humor with new levels of agency and a killer set of vocal chords; and Laura Bell Bundy is the ideal sexy oddball to play the ex-burlesque dancer version of Trixie hinted at in the original sketches on The Jackie Gleason Show.
Book writers Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss sketch out the plot like any old episode of The Honeymooners, marrying theater with the fast pace of TV comedy while cribbing some of the sitcom's greatest hits (fans of the show will be happy to know the famous golf scene makes the cut). Ralph, frustrated by 15 years of stasis at the Gotham Bus Company, gets Norton to join him in entering a jingle contest for Faciamatta's Mazzeroni cheese (Lewis J. Stadlen makes for a hilarious cheese fascist as Old Man Faciamatta). Much to Alice's surprise (and also thanks to her lyrical assistance), the dopey pals win the contest and land full-time jobs as high-paid Mad Men. As they start their new careers, Norton's tunes (the work of composer Stephen Weiner) are widely acclaimed, but Ralph's lyrics leave something to be desired, putting his job in jeopardy.
Hanging your musical on the distinction between good and bad lyrics is a risky game to play when lyrics are often a musical's downfall in the first place. Lyricist Peter Mills's wordplay, however, is more satisfying than the melodies it often rests inside. If in the original sitcom Ralph came home with a mysterious piano, you'd only hope Alice would come back with the rhyming retort, "I don't need an eyesore that clutters the house. I already have that, it's called a spouse."
Beowulf Boritt re-creates the Kramden's Brooklyn apartment, though for the sake of musical glitz it at times opens up into Ralph's luxury dream home and at others into a giant New York City skyline (a blue color scheme is consistent throughout in homage to the TV show's classic night-sky opener). Jess Goldstein's costumes are referential to the source material but bright and attractive. Everything feels familiar but nothing feels dusty — a quality the creative team harnesses particularly well when it comes to the sticky subject of how to portray women of the 1950s accurately while being conscientious of how times have changed. Alice's 11 o'clock number, "A Woman's Work" (a showstopper in Kritzer's unbeatable hands), solidly maintains her status as a homemaker while allowing her to strut the confident intelligence she brings to her marriage. Trixie, though depicted as a ditzy blond on a quest to reclaim her lost burlesque career, gets the delightfully subversive task of performing a reverse striptease in the song "Keepin' It Warm" (it's exactly what it sounds like and Laura Bell Bundy does it hilariously). And the romantic tune "To the Moon" finally puts Ralph's empty threats to bed, transitioning his popular catchphrase into a confession of love and respect.
It takes almost three hours and nearly 20 musical numbers to make it through every plot twist, some of which should get the ax before these Honeymooners find their next home. And yet, the musical serves up more than just an extended get-rich-quick scheme like a finale special. It feels like a genuine celebration of the markedly unremarkable Nortons and Kramdens, who became icons of the working middle class. If only this show could climb the ladder of prestige without forcing its patrons to, there's a wide audience ready to tune in.