Book by Dusty Kay & Bill Nuss; Music by Stephen Weiner; Lyrics by Peter Mills
Directed by John Rando; Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse
Runs through 10.29.17
Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
by Molly Marinik on 10.10.17
Michael McGrath, Leslie Kritzer, Michael Mastro, and Laura Bell Bundy in The Honeymooners. Photo by Evan Zimmerman.
BOTTOM LINE: The perfect musical for people who get nostalgic about mid-century sitcoms.
Whether you were watching TV in the 1950s or not, you likely know a bit about The Honeymooners from pop culture osmosis. Starring Jackie Gleason and touting such catch phrases as “to the moon, Alice!” and “one of these days, pow! Right in the kisser!” the show ran for 39 episodes and has been frequently parodied over the years including on an episode of The Simpsons. It’s also now a musical enjoying a lively world premiere at Paper Mill Playhouse.
True to its source material, the musical The Honeymooners also takes place in the ‘50s. We meet the always over-promising and under-delivering bus driver protagonist Ralph Kramden (Michael McGrath) and his infinitely patient wife Alice (Leslie Kritzer). Friends and neighbors Ed Norton (Michael Mastro) and his wife Trixie (Laura Bell Bundy) are always nearby. Plenty of antics ensue when Ralph decides that he and Ed should enter a jingle-writing contest for their favorite cheese and —lo-and-behold—they win the contest so handily that they’re actually awarded top marketing jobs at a Madison Avenue firm. More antics ensue as these blue collar Brooklynites try to fit in as ad men. And all the while their wives are the ones holding it together (and in Ralph’s case, literally doing the work for him).
The content has a yester-year quality to it and the production does as well, employing a lot of traditional musical comedy tactics to draw its zany, colorful world. It works well for The Honeymooners, which stays true to its nostalgia. And it allows director John Rando and choreographer Joshua Bergasse to stage delightful moments of comedy that harken back to the golden age of musical theater. It’s a nice reminder that while contemporary musicals are brilliantly breaking barriers and innovating the genre, reflecting on the shows that paved the way is a lot of fun, too.
That energy is enabled by a first rate ensemble. But while Ralph and Ed are technically the protagonists (and McGrath and Mastro deliver very entertaining performances), it’s Alice and Trixie who are the unsung heroes as their bumbling husbands grasp at the success they feel they deserve. Kritzer and Bundy are perfectly cast in these roles, maintaining layered personas under a dutiful mid-century housewife exterior. Trixie has a subplot as a burlesque dancer and Bundy knows exactly what to do with the ditzy blonde character. Coupled with Joshua Bergasse’s playful choreography in the ironically themed “Keeping It Warm” (in which Trixie and her back-up dancers start in lingerie and end up in layers of winter wear by the end), Bundy calibrates the comedy perfectly. Kritzer gives a dynamic performance as a fed-up woman using her solo “A Woman’s Work” to vent the lifetime of frustration that comes with her narrow place in the world. It’s one of the best moments in the show.
While The Honeymooners does its part to shine a light on inequality and chauvinism through Trixie and Alice’s eyes – even including a line about a potential woman president—it’s still a hard pill to swallow given the current state of gender politics (which a lot of people would argue isn’t actually too far removed from the ‘50s). The musical isn’t trying to be political—which makes sense because at its core it hinges on joyous nostalgia for the source material – but it also, by default, reinforces the gender roles and values of the time. While I appreciate that The Honeymooners acknowledges this, it can’t get away with it like other stories on stage and film that take place in the era can—because it’s a comedy. And a big, broad, dopey, laugh-line-filled comedy, at that. It’s just not easy for me to laugh at buffoons asserting their dominance over their wives when real men are trying to normalize that dynamic today.
I suspect that the musical will make those to whom the TV show means something very, very happy. While the story is basically new, it’s full of references to various episodes and loyal to the show’s gags and one-liners. There were many times when my fellow audience members were vigorously responding to a joke I was clearly not in on (something about raccoons comes to mind). And while I was cringing as Ralph spouted thinly veiled threats of violence to get Alice to stop talking, fans of The Honeymooners were rolling in the aisles. How we experience art reflects our personal lens, and if you think this musical is necessary or not will depend largely on your own relationship to the content. Meanwhile, I’ll stay tuned for a Roseanne musical a few decades from now.
(The Honeymooners runs at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn, NJ, through October 29, 2017. The running time is 2 hours 40 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Wednesdays at 7:30; Thursdays at 1:30 and 7:30; Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 1:30 and 8; and Sundays at 1:30 and 7. Tickets are $103-$137 and are available at papermill.org.)
The Honeymooners, based on the CBS television series, is written by Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss, with music by Stephen Weiner, and lyrics by Peter Mills. Directed by John Rando. Choreography by Joshua Bergasse. Musical Direction by Remy Kurs. Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume Design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting Design by Jason Lyons. Sound Design by Dai Harada. Hair, Wig and Makeup Design by Leah J. Loukas. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman. Production Stage Manager is Timothy R. Semon.
The cast includes Michael McGrath, Michael Mastro, Leslie Kritzer, Laura Bell Bundy, Lewis Cleale, Lewis J. Stadlen, David Wohl, Holly Ann Butler, Chris Dwan, Hannah Florence, Tessa Grady, Stacey Todd Hold, Ryan Kasprzak, Drew King, Eloise Kropp, Harris Milgrim, Justin Prescott, Lance Roberts, Jeffrey Schecter, Britton Smith, Alison Solomon, Michael L. Walters, and Kevin Worley.