Entertainment » Theatre

The Honeymooners

by Bobby McGuire
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Oct 11, 2017
Leslie Krittler and Michael McGrath as Alice and Ralph Kramden
Leslie Krittler and Michael McGrath as Alice and Ralph Kramden  

In Act One of Paper Mill Playhouse's world premiere musical "The Honeymooners," characters Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton write a jingle for a cheese company that rhymes "pepperoni, rigatoni, baloney and phony." Sondheim, it ain't. But who can complain? For theater snobs, the warning label is in the title of the show itself. After all, Ralph, Norton, Alice and Trixie are hardly characters out of "The Seagull." But for those (like myself) who see the classic TV quartet as old friends, the welcome mat is out.

Framed in the style of its TV source material, "The Honeymooners" follows the standard plot of one of the show's episodes. Perpetual loser Ralph Kramden embarks on a hare-brained scheme involving a jingle contest that lands him and his buddy Norton with fish-out-of-water jobs as advertising executives. Hilarity ensues. Dreams are dashed. And Ralph returns to his life as a bus driver and his two-room apartment on Chauncey Street in Brooklyn.

The musical scores its highest marks with longtime fans of the sitcom who gleefully giggle at a bevy of familiar catchphrases and sight gags. Book writers Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss crammed in everything, including favorite bits of Norton's cry "Lulu" and "Swanee River" piano warmup to Ralph's "I'm a Blaaaabermouth" and "Hardee har har."

Regrettably, this ends up being too much of a good thing. And for as much fun as all it is for fans to see their favorite bits from all 39 classic episodes live on stage, it ends up bloating the sitcom format. None of this is helped by the intermission, which breaks the evening up into halves of one very long narrative that regularly would have played out in 30 minutes on the small screen.

Musically the show fares better thanks to its bouncy score, which, although lacking in originality, delivers period flair (and at times) heightened emotion. Standouts include a "Take Back Your Mink" pastiche for Trixie titled "Keep Me Warm," and the comic torch duet "I'll Miss The Guy" sung by Ralph and Norton when their friendship is on the rocks.

Director John Rando does an admirable job in keeping the overstuffed evening moving and even manages to emphasize the comic characters' humanity. However, the show's style falls apart whenever the largely superfluous dancing ensemble is on stage. And while choreographer Joshua Bergasse cleverly recreates the famed June Taylor Dancers from Jackie Gleason's variety program, that reference is lost anyone in the audience older than a baby boomer.

Fortunately, the heartbeat of the beloved TV show remains thanks largely to a quartet of seasoned Broadway pros in the musical's four leads.

Laura Bell Bundy's Trixie suitably Marilyn Monroes her songs while maintaining original actress Joyce Randolph's earnest line delivery. Hand on hip, Leslie Kritzer's Alice pitch-perfectly channels Audrey Meadows' signature droll sarcasm and snappy wisecracks. And with every gesture, vocal inflection and line reading, as sewer worker Ed Norton, Michael Mastro delivers a performance that creator Art Carney might have mistaken for a mirror image.

Ironically while Jackie Gleason famously hated rehearsing, it's clear that actor Michael McGrath painstakingly worked to perfect Gleasonisms, all of which are on display. From Ralph's signature swagger, to his double-double takes, hair-trigger emotional swings, sing-song line readings and clipped gestures, McGrath has skillfully recreated Gleason's unmistakable physical comedy while emotionally embodying the blind hopefulness and naiveté that made Kramden such an endearing hero.

As a sub-genre, musicals based on TV shows never fare very well. "Happy Days" never saw Broadway, "High School Musical" only ran three months on the Great White Way, and "The Addams Family" has become a dreaded evening for parents who have to sit through their kids' high school production of the show. However, unlike the aforementioned, there isn't much in "The Honeymooners" that couldn't be fixed with a pair of scissors and big red pen.

Perhaps TV's Ed Norton summed up this musical's fixable flaw in an episode of "The Honeymooners" in which he described Ralph's physique as "very well developed muscles, a good bone structure, fine frame... and the whole thing is covered with fat."

As a musical, "The Honeymooners" needs to trim the fat.

"The Honeymooners" runs through October 28 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Dr., Millburn, NJ. For tickets and information, visit www.papermill.org

New York Theater Reviews

This story is part of our special report titled "New York Theater Reviews." Want to read more? Here's the full list.


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