Based on the CBS television series
Book by Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss
Music by Stephen Weiner, lyrics by Peter Mills
Through Sunday, Oct. 29
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn
By GWEN OREL
There’s a lot of fan service in “The Honeymooners.”
That’s a good thing.
The musical at Paper Mill Playhouse making its world premiere is based on the television series that ran on CBS in 1955-56. And has run in repeats forever.
The audience clapped when Ralph Kramden (Michael McGrath) appeared. They clapped for Alice (Leslie Kritzer). They clapped for Trixie (Laura Bell Bundy). They clapped long and hard for Norton (Michael Mastro).
They were clapping for the characters portrayed by Jackie Gleason and Art Carney. Ralph and Norton inspired the Flintstones, after all.
When McGrath delivered Kramden’s most famous lines or gestures: “to the moon, Alice” – “hamina hamina hamina” – “I got a BIG MOUTH” – the audience cheered.
Writers Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss even manage to get in “address the ball” from the “The Golfer” episode. Yep, Ralph appears in clashing argyles (costumes by Jess Goldstein). And there’s also a meeting of the Raccoons, the boys’ Elk-like social fraternity.
There’s a lot of top talent onstage: director John Rando has won a Tony. So has set designer Beowulf Boritt. So has Goldstein. Everything shrieks “Broadway transfer.”
John Rando keeps the pace, keeps the feel of the TV show, and keeps it fresh and theatrical.
In the musical, Kramden and Norton enter a jingle competition and get jobs on Madison Avenue. Norton’s wife Trixie wants to return to her job at the Burlesque (her backstory is alluded to in the original show).
Those are the two plot engines of the piece, especially when against all odds Ralph and Norton win the contest. There’s a little “Mad Men,” some “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying,” some Hot Box girls of “Guys and Dolls” onstage.
So there’s a transparent excuse for Bundy, as Trixie, to croon a pretty torch song. What’s bad about that?
We begin in Ralph and Alice’s Chauncey Street, Brooklyn walk-up apartment. Ralph is a uniform-wearing bus-driver. Alice is long-suffering and sarcastic. We see her rehearsing the line “You bet I do,” practicing for telling her husband convincingly that he deserves a promotion.
Of course, he doesn’t get it. It would be disappointing for the fans if he did. “Going Places,” a song performed by bus drivers with steering wheels, however, keeps the momentum going.
The show is aware of the cliche that Ralph will inevitably screw their surprising success up, and pokes fun at it a few
times: in a dream sequence of the Kramdens on Park Avenue the swells get tired of the tap dance because it’s only a daydream. Joshua Bergasse’s choreography sparkles here.
It also sparkles in a presentation of the jingle to Old Man Faciamatta (Lewis J. Stadlen), of the cheese company, Bergasse shows us both Italian peasant dancing and Irish step dancing. A company hack runs on with an Italian flag, and then the Irish one: the two flags are separated only by the change from red to orange. Ralph shows off his Irish heritage by step dancing on the table. It’s terrifically silly, like the television show.
Peter Mills’ lyrics, which go by fast, are similarly smart: In “Infine La Felicita,” “Felicita” rhymes with “Wichita” and “soon to make me rich-i-ta.”.
The acknowledgment of the 21st-Century audience isn’t limited to fan service: Norton also has moment where he wonders aloud how great it would be if there were, for example, a device that let you record a television show to watch the next day.
Or a phone you could carry around with you.
Another nod, perhaps, to the 21st Century is “To the Moon,” a lovely duet between Ralph and Alice that takes that threat of his to punch her and turns it around. why did he never do it?
“Because I never meant it,” he replies humbly. Which eye-rolling Alice clearly knew from day one, along with every fan.
McGrath makes a lovable Ralph, and Kritzer’s Alice eerily evokes Audrey Meadows. In “A Woman’s Work,” about being a Brooklyn Strong kind of gal, however, she startlingly scats, and it’s gorgeous. The mouth on her. The voice on her.
Mastro’s Norton has Carney’s gestures but not his voice; he seems a bit too serious. At more than two and a half hours, the musical would be sharper if it were trimmed. Montclair’s David Wohl has a small role as ad exec Allen Upshaw, who loves being mean, which is fun.
But Stephen Weiner’s music, while not memorable, is fun. Beowulf Boritt’s set is architectural: a three-dimensional city skyscape appears in the background of many scenes. Jess Goldstein’s period costumes center on lavender and pink, and add to the overall wholesome feeling of the show.
It won’t change your life. It’s a sitcom kind of musical. But that’s more than good enough.