Thursday, January 15, 2015

When You Say Vegas, You're Saying Laughs

Review: Honeymoon in Vegas

Tony Danza (left) and Rob McClure (right) ham it up in the hysterical new comedy Honeymoon in Vegas.

If there was a Tony Award for most versatile composer, Jason Robert Brown (who already has 3 of the gold statuettes) would certainly be a prime candidate. Brown's bouncy songs for the frothy, tuneful Honeymoon in Vegas couldn't be further removed from the rapturous, nearly operatic score he composed for The Bridges of Madison County just one year ago. Like Bridges, his latest show is not entirely free from flaws, but those problems are miniscule compared to everything this slickly produced and highly entertaining comedy gets right. Honeymoon is the most purely entertaining new musical of the season, and represents yet another high point in Brown's ever expanding songbook.

The show concerns Jack Singer, an everyday Brooklynite with serious commitment issues. Although Jack dearly loves his longtime girlfriend Betsy, a deathbed promise to his departed mother causes him to choke every time he contemplates popping the big question. He finally works up the nerve to take her to Las Vegas to elope, but things go awry when an unscrupulous gambler by the name of Tommy Korman decides he must have Betsy for himself (as she is a dead ringer for Tommy's deceased wife). What follows is a madcap adventure that takes everyone from the Vegas Strip to the beaches of Hawaii and back over the course of one zany weekend, with plenty of musical comedy shenanigans along the way.

Brown has been duly praised over the course of his career, and his work here again asserts his position as one of the most versatile, accomplished composers working in the theatre today. Brown combines infectious melodies and toe tapping vamps with playfully inventive lyrics that are witty without feeling forced; even the ever-exacting Sondheim would surely be delighted with the rhyming of "BeyoncĂ©" and "fiancĂ©." The songs walk the fine line between sounding familiar and still offering sonic surprises, and everything has been arranged by Brown and his co-orchestrators Don Sebesky, Larry Blank, and Charlie Rosen to evoke the big brassy musicals of yesteryear. While a couple of songs overstay their welcome, the vast majority are so delightful you'll actually find yourself wishing for full fledged reprises rather than the melodic motifs Brown favors here. If there's one major knock against the score, it's that the songs are so well integrated into the plot that it prohibits any true showstoppers from emerging.

Speaking of plotting, librettist Andrew Bergman has done a smashing job of adapting his own screenplay for the stage. Although certain developments are a little too clearly telegraphed, the book scenes in large part avoid the inauthenticity that plagues so many musical comedies. The songs are the clear highlight, but the book scenes hold your interest because they handle character and plot development in a way that is virtually seamless.

Unfortunately for the show, some of Brown and Bergman's sterling work is obscured by Gary Griffin's overly busy direction. Certain jokes get lost thanks to unnecessarily distracting staging, which renders numbers like the opening "I Love Betsy" less humorous than they could be. There are also certain physical conventions that are only haphazardly employed, which again confuses things in this very tightly written and plotted show. One glaring example is "Forever Starts Tonight," which sees Tommy inexplicably interacting with Jack and Betsy while they steadfastly ignore his presence. Griffin probably means for Tommy to be in a separate location, but having him move between the two and even touch them (on a bare stage) makes the distinction harder to grasp. First time choreographer Denis Jones' work is also underwhelming, although part of his problem stems from trying to shoehorn a traditional ensemble into songs that don't really require them outside of backing harmonies.

In the central role of Jack, Tony-nominee Rob McClure does exceptional work. McClure has an appealing everyman quality with just enough neurosis to keep him interesting, and his delivery of Brown's lyrics is as natural and effortless as breathing. McClure's incredibly expressive face speaks volumes, and the young actor has a clear gift for musical comedy that he smartly deploys throughout the evening. Television icon Tony Danza is surprisingly effective as McClure's romantic rival Tommy, with a pleasant singing voice and an easy-going persona that belies the nefarious means he'll use to get what he wants. Danza can seem stiff at times, but overall he gives a charmingly accomplished performance.

As the much desired and put upon Betsy, Brynn O'Malley is something close to a revelation. O'Malley takes a character that could have been quite boring and makes her the most interesting and human person onstage, in a brilliantly naturalistic turn that has just enough comedic bite to withstand the tomfoolery going on around her. Equally adept at heartfelt ballads and more comedic uptempos, O'Malley also has a subtly hilarious, entirely wordless cameo as Tommy's long-dead wife during the song "Out of the Sun." The only thing that could possibly improve O'Malley's performance is if Brown had written her the showstopper she so clearly deserves. The extremely catchy "Betsy's Getting Married" comes *this close* to being such a number, but unfortunately for O'Malley the song morphs into a musical scene between Jack and Tommy just when she's poised to kick the song into high gear.

The entire enterprise is slickly designed and lovingly realized, with the saturated colors and slightly exaggerated geometry of Anna Louizos' set selling the fantasy of Honeymoon's versions of Vegas, New York, and Hawaii. Louizos also makes excellent use of projections to seamlessly enhance her sets in a way that is almost unnoticeable (and more importantly, doesn't replace physical set pieces). Brian Hemesath's costumes encompass everything from track suits to feathered headdresses, all rendered in eye-popping colors that perfectly compliment the show's heightened tone. The show is always a joy to look at, successfully combining a modern Broadway aesthetic with an old school sensibility.

In fact, that duality best sums up Honeymoon in Vegas. It seamlessly combines the best traits of Golden Age musical comedies and more contemporary works, bolstered by yet another outstanding score from the multi-talented Jason Robert Brown. Overflowing with wit and warmth, the production is occasionally hindered by Gary Griffin's overreliance on bells and whistles, but the show's big beaming heart shines through regardless. Rob McClure proves that his excellent work in the ill-fated Chaplin was not a fluke, and Brynn O'Malley emerges as a musical comedy force to be reckoned with. Honeymoon is one of the safest bets you can currently make on Broadway, a guaranteed good time that deserves a wider audience.

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