Posted on October 11, 2013 at 1:36 am

“Honeymoon In Vegas” opened last Sunday at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn NJ, with an amazing cast including Rob McClure, Brynn O’Malley, Nancy Opel, David Josefsberg, Matt Saldivar and the one and only Tony Danza. I guess it went well, because the reviews from the papers all say the same thing: We’re a hit!

For the first time in my life, I wrote a show that got a rave in the NY Times. Let me tell you, it’s a surreal feeling. Here’s the whole thing, or you can look at it on the Times website:

Higher Love NYT

FROM RING-A-DING SWAGGER TO SWOONING ROMANTICISM
‘Honeymoon In Vegas’ Opens at the Paper Mill Playhouse
by BEN BRANTLEY

MILLBURN, N.J. — Many a tut has been tutted in recent years over the contamination of Broadway by the spirit of Las Vegas, the world capital of the flashy, boozy floor show. So I am happy to report that you can score one for Team Broadway. The delightfully unexpected “Honeymoon in Vegas,” which opened this week at the Paper Mill Playhouse here, has wrestled the neon mirage of its title into the solid, satisfying shape of a classic Broadway musical.

Based on the 1992 movie by Andrew Bergman, who also wrote the salty book for this show, and featuring a revelation of a score by Jason Robert Brown, “Honeymoon in Vegas” is no facile satire. Instead, it captures, tickles and exalts the singular sensibility of a desert city based on surreal estate. Like Las Vegas itself, “Honeymoon” exists at the corner of tacky and hip. As performed under the single-malt-smooth direction of Gary Griffin, it’s a swinging hymn to laid-back outrageousness.

Though the songs have of-the-moment lyrics that brazenly rhyme Beyoncé with fiancée, and Prada with enchilada, “Honeymoon” could almost pass as one of the best musicals of the early 1960s. That was the last-gasp period for the well-made, un-self-conscious and insistently tuneful song-and-dance show. Such a throwback quality is appropriate to a work that takes place in a time-warp town, where the dapper, bacchanalian ghosts of the Rat Pack still haunt the casinos.

Certainly, the cooler-than-cool spirit of that group’s chairman of the board, Frank Sinatra, is present in “Honeymoon,” made flesh in a deliciously underplayed star turn by Tony Danza as an entrepreneur of dubious business deals and unquestionable power. But another, sweatier tutelary god of Las Vegas is on hand, too: Elvis, who shows up in the form of a deus-ex-machina chorus of parachuting Presley impersonators whom the choreographer Denis Jones knows just how to use.

These rival pop avatars shape the destiny of two hayseeds out of Brooklyn, Jack Singer and Betsy Nolan (a nicely matched Rob McClure and Brynn O’Malley), who have come to Las Vegas to get married. Or maybe not. Jack is still haunted by the possessive phantom of his mother, Bea (Nancy Opel), who extracted a deathbed promise from her son never to wed.

As it happens, another dead woman occupies the thoughts of the Vegas kingpin Tommy Korman (Mr. Danza), whose dearly departed wife, Donna, died of skin cancer. (In a priceless model of tasteful tastelessness, Tommy laments the cause of her demise in a song called “Out of the Sun.”) And as it also happens, Betsy is a living ringer for Donna. This means that Tommy wants Betsy, and what Tommy wants, Tommy gets.

You know all this already if you’ve seen Mr. Bergman’s original film, which starred James Caan, Nicolas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker. Normally, I’m all for calling a moratorium on musicals based on movies. Then along comes “The Producers,” or “Once,” or “Honeymoon in Vegas.”

And, really, you wouldn’t think that “Honeymoon” could possibly work, adapting a convoluted screenplay that sets its characters twirling from New York parks to Las Vegas hotel palaces to the beaches of Hawaii. But as a moviemaker (in films that also include “The Freshman” and “Soapdish”), Mr. Bergman has brought a convincing deadpan logic to impossible situations. He knows that over-the-top is funniest when it’s presented at ground level.

Working with Mr. Griffin and a design team that includes Anna Louizos (sets) and Brian Hemesath (costumes), he translates that point of view to the stage with a droll sincerity that never strains for wild-and-crazy heights. The direction by Mr. Griffin (“The Color Purple”) is a paradigm of narrative clarity, even when “Honeymoon” is taking place in different time zones (and even different times) all at once.

But since this “Honeymoon” is a musical, what counts most is the music. And as soon as you hear the opening bars of the overture by Mr. Brown — who, as the composer of “Parade” and “The Last Five Years,” had been consigned to the commercial margins of “cerebral” post-Sondheim theater composers — you know you’re listening to the sound of success. (Mr. Brown will be represented on Broadway later this season with “The Bridges of Madison County.”)

Packed with gleaming brass and cascading piano notes, the score melds Vegas chutzpah with Broadway schmaltz, or vice versa. One minute, it’s capturing the unctuous ring-a-ding bravado of a weary casino crowd pleaser (a fabulous David Josefsberg, equal parts Wayne Newton, Paul Anka and Robert Goulet), or blissfully sending up the frustrations of flight reservations in “Airport Song,” which makes inspired use of a single place-name. (Psst, it’s Atlanta.) The next, it’s spinning a love ballad whose gentleness is wittily belied by the improbable circumstances that surround it.

With orchestrations by Don Sebesky that Nelson Riddle would be proud of, this music (overseen by Tom Murray) hooks you from the get-go; it’s as corny and sophisticated as Sinatra’s doing “Strangers in the Night,” and it revels in the contradiction.

Which brings me back to Mr. Danza, best known for the sitcoms “Taxi” and “Who’s the Boss?,” whose Tommy Korman may be the best musical portrayal of a gentleman gangster since the heyday of “Guys and Dolls.” His clipped, near-monotonal speaking and singing style is all mellow, mellow menace, which allows him to ring a variety of friendly and sinister nuances from the word “arrangement.”

Tommy is not a screaming caricature but a very stylish cartoon, a beacon of elegant crudeness. He sets the tone and rhythms for a show that, surprisingly, never oversells itself. Even parts like the ghost of the monster mom (Ms. Opel knows just how far to take the role), a Hawaiian Mata Hari named Mahi (Catherine Ricafort) and Tommy’s fawning henchman (Matthew Saldivar) are never pushed to grotesque excess.

In the midst of the show’s matter-of-fact madness, Mr. McClure (who wowed in the title role in Broadway’s “Chaplin”) and Ms. O’Malley keep us grounded as an ordinary couple in extraordinary circumstances. They bring a conversational ease to their songs, while resisting the temptation to make frenzy cute. Our believing in their characters is crucial to our believing the unbelievable plot they find themselves trapped in.

So will this Vegas come to Broadway, where it belongs? One of the lessons of the ill-fated poker game that is central to this show is that nothing is a sure bet. But “Honeymoon,” bless its double-dealing heart, sure comes close to feeling like one.

And even before the Times came out, we had a pretty stellar bunch of reviews. Read for yourself:

Frank Scheck at the New York Post writes:

I Love Betsy

DELIGHTFULLY DITZY ‘HONEYMOON IN VEGAS’ PARACHUTES INTO NJ

Theater Review: Honeymoon in Vegas, 3 stars, Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ; 973-376-4343. Through Oct. 27. Running time: 150 minutes, one intermission.

The fun begins long before the skydiving Elvis impersonators show up in “Honeymoon in Vegas,” the delightfully ditzy new musical based on the ’92 Nicolas Cage-Sarah Jessica Parker film. Now getting its world premiere in New Jersey, possibly en route to Broadway, it lands you in Rat Pack territory as soon as the orchestra launches into the jazzy, brassy overture.

Jason Robert Brown’s bouncy score accompanies the gag-filled book by Andrew Bergman, who also wrote and directed the film, about the marriage-phobic Jack (Rob McClure) and his long-suffering girlfriend, Betsy (Brynn O’Malley).

It’s not that Jack doesn’t want to do the right thing. It’s that he can’t: His very Jewish mother, Bea (Nancy Opel), made him promise that he would, as she puts it in her hilarious deathbed song, “Never Get Married.”

The trouble begins when Jack impulsively proposes anyway and whisks Betsy off to Vegas for a quickie wedding. There they encounter the dashing Tommy Korman (Tony Danza, in the role James Caan played in the film), a gambler still pining for his late wife. Betsy, it seems, is a dead ringer for Tommy’s beloved, and he’s determined to have her.

After luring Jack into a high-stakes poker game and scamming him to the tune of $58,000, Tommy’s “Indecent Proposal”-style solution is to forgive Jack’s debt if Betsy agrees to spend the weekend in Hawaii with him. By this point, Betsy is so infuriated that she agrees, just to teach Jack a lesson.

It’s a flimsy premise, to be sure, but successful musicals have been built on less. And this one works, thanks to such wacky elements as a scantily clad harpist who plays her instrument with her breasts and, of course, those skydiving Elvises, depicted here by puppets on wires.

As McClure proved last year in Broadway’s “Chaplin,” he’s terrific at physical comedy, and here he also mines big laughs with his increasingly manic line readings. The lissome O’Malley (late of “Annie”) brings real charm to her role, and Opel and Matthew Saldivar are a riot as, respectively, the Jewish mother who keeps popping up after her death and Tommy’s buffoonish henchman, Johnny Sandwich (“I changed it from Focaccia,” he explains).

But it’s Danza — still boyishly handsome at 62 — who has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. His timing is razor-sharp, his crooning pleasant, and his soft-shoe dancing smooth as he makes you root for Tommy despite his thoroughly despicable behavior.

As for Brown’s old-fashioned Broadway-style score, it’s both tuneful and witty. As Jack sings in the opening number:

“I like dancing on the pier / I like Broadway (once a year) / But I love Betsy! / I like visits to the zoo / I like opera (that’s not true!) / But I love Betsy!”

“Honeymoon in Vegas” could well succeed on Broadway, especially if director Gary Griffin punches up the occasionally sluggish pace. It’s the kind of silly, fun musical you’d want to take your mother to . . . unless, of course, you’re hoping to get married.

Jeremy Gerard at Bloomberg has this to say:

Higher Love

TONY DANZA CHARMS AS TUNEFUL CARD-SHARP IN ‘VEGAS’

Fondly remembered for those Elvis impersonators parachuting to the Strip and saving the day for a Brooklyn schnook, “Honeymoon in Vegas” is the latest film-to-musical transfer looking for a Broadway perch.

It’s also the season’s second show by the extraordinarily gifted songwriter Jason Robert Brown, whose darker, more elegiac “The Bridges of Madison County” arrives in January after a run at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

“Vegas,” at the Paper Mill Playhouse, finds Brown in a lighter vein and well-paired with the facile author Andrew Bergman (who wrote and directed the 1992 film) and two charming stars: Tony Danza as a dangerously suave card-sharp and Rob McClure as his mark, a city rube.

Though the time is now, Brown gleefully summons the Rat Pack days of busty show girls and crowded casinos.

First we open in Brooklyn, where Jack Singer (McClure, a limber clown) is singing “I Love Betsy,” an ode to his girlfriend (Brynn O’Malley) of five years, as a rainbow of humanity passes by.

Brown’s ease with pop hooks and clever lyrics is evident from the get-go: “I like Shake Shack, I like MoMA/And New Jersey’s ripe aroma,” Jack sings. “Just like Jay-Z and Beyonce/I will make her my fiance. I love Betsy!” It’s exuberant and funny.

But a “curse” from his long-dead mother (Nancy Opel, quite alive in the toned-down, evil-mother role) has prevented him from marrying his girl. They end up in Vegas, where Tommy Korman (Danza) falls for her.

He sets up Jack to lose at a high-stakes poker game in which Betsy turns out to be the prize, leading to a weekend trip to Hawaii (too like the detour to Havana in “Guys and Dolls,” but no matter). Jack follows like a wounded puppy. Tommy plays hardball.

There are splashy dance numbers and the torchy “Anywhere But Here” for Betsy, while Danza does a convincing soft shoe and a not-bad imitation of Sinatra in the ballad “Out of the Sun.”

Best of all is McClure, rebounding spiritedly from the Broadway flop “Chaplin.” Brown has given him numbers in which to shine, including a finale that finds him in a cargo plane full of imitation Elvises with parachutes strapped to their backs.

“Honeymoon in Vegas” doesn’t always know whether it’s comedy or parody, a problem that mostly affects the character of Tommy: Is he a gangster creep or just a lonely widower used to getting his way?

But Gary Griffin’s fleet staging, Denis Jones’s stylish dances and a fabulous big band conducted by Tom Murray come alive in Anna Louizos’s typically cheeky settings and Brian Hemesath’s spot-on costumes. “Honeymoon” is a winner.

Through Oct. 27 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Dr., Millburn, NJ. Information: +1-973-376-4343; http://www.papermill.org. Rating: ****

Jim Beckerman at the Bergen Record says the following:

Out Of The Sun

Theater review: ‘Honeymoon in Vegas’ at Paper Mill Playhouse

The true star of “Honeymoon in Vegas” doesn’t dance, doesn’t act, doesn’t belt out a song surrounded by Vegas showgirls or wear a rhinestone Elvis suit.

But with apologies to a stageful of highly talented people who do all those things, it is composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown who is the real hero of this – rather unexpectedly – terrific new musical now making a stop at Paper Mill Playhouse on its way to a possible Broadway run.

Unexpected, because the lightweight 1992 Nicolas Cage romantic comedy about a Vegas wedding sabotaged by a high-rolling gambler would seem to be thin stuff to base a show on – even if this one does boast the services of TV’s Tony Danza and Broadway’s Rob McClure (“Chaplin”). But sometimes it happens that a superior show is built on an unpromising foundation: “Anything Goes” and “Damn Yankees” come to mind. Here is another case where a strong score, delivered with flair by skilled performers who seem to be having a great time, adds up to a terrific night.

“Honeymoon in Vegas” may be about the trials of a commitment-shy bachelor with a mother complex (McClure, of New Milford), his long-suffering fiancée (Brynn O’Malley), the sentimental gangster (Danza) who takes one look at her in Vegas and decides to muscle in, and a bunch of skydiving Elvis impersonators. (Yes, that’s the plot.) But what it’s really about is a celebration of a certain kind of show business: a world of big-band music, showgirls, schmaltz, low comedy, umbrella drinks. In a word: Vegas. Does that sound irresistible? Brown’s score makes it sound authentic.

“Honeymoon in Vegas” is a musical that is actually musical: something that can’t be taken for granted these days. Not since “Hairspray” has a score deliberately evoking a particular style and era been composed with so good an ear. Here, Brown (“Parade”) is evoking the loungy. show-biz stylings of the Rat Pack days — brassy tunes with an easy swing or a bossa beat. He’s taken Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Barry Manilow, Don Ho and Elvis, run them through a coffee grinder and brewed a batch of flavorful songs (“A Little Luck” and the title tune are especially good) that would sound totally in place at Caesars Palace or The Sands. And the lyrics are notably clever. Hats off to anyone who would think to rhyme “fiancée” with “Beyoncé.”

In this show – fittingly – the orchestra is front and center, right up on the stage. Tom Murray conducts a terrific band that is truly a band, not just 14-piece musical accompaniment. At various points, Frank Basile (sax), James Sampliner (piano) and Paul Woodiel (violin) took solos Sunday that got well-deserved applause.

The show that goes with the band is pretty much a pip. Who knew that a likable TV personality like Danza (“Who’s the Boss?”) was also a total show-biz pro, bossing the stage with easy charm and terrific soft-shoe dance moves? Who would guess that McClure, the expert mimic of “Chaplin,” could be so winning as a frazzled romantic hero (he suggests a young Joel Grey)? O’Malley as the puckish heroine, David Josefsberg as a king snake among lounge lizards, Nancy Opel as the overbearing mother, Matthew Saldivar as Danza’s oily henchman and Catherine Ricafort as an island temptress are equally deft, under the solid direction of Gary Griffin, abetted by Denis Jones’ choreography. But oh, that band.

You get the idea. But here are some samples of other folks with good taste. Thom Geier in Entertainment Weekly had something to say about it:

When You Say Vegas

In the Las Vegas of the new musical Honeymoon in Vegas, there are no EDM deejays or clubs with bottle service. Elvis has not yet left the building (except maybe to put on a parachute). Director Gary Griffin’s guffaw-out-loud production, playing through Oct. 27 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., boasts an old-school showmanship and shtick-happy comic sensibility that recall the Sin City of the Brat Pack era.

Happily, Jason Robert Brown’s zippy score is a mostly perfect complement to the daffiness of the material. Brown — who has another movie-inspired musical, The Bridges of Madison County, due on Broadway this season — has penned some of the wittiest lyrics in recent memory, outrageously rhyming words like heinous and anus (and molars with high rollers).

…The laughs come as fast as pulls on a slot machine, thanks in part to a winning cast. Standouts include Nancy Opel as Jack’s smothering Jewish mom, who pops up frequently (and hilariously) in flashbacks, and Matthew Saldivar as Tommy’s colorful henchman, Johnny Sandwich (”changed from Foccacia,” he explains).

McClure, who resembles the love child of Paul Reiser and Roberto Benigni, again displays his gift for physical comedy, particularly when he joins the flying Elvises or mimics the ”Single Ladies” dance while singing of his beloved Betsy, ”Just like Jay-Z and Beyonce / I will make her my fiancee.” (The choreography is by Denis Jones.) Speaking of Betsy, O’Malley is a crystal-voiced ingenue whose underwritten character behaves inexplicably, particularly in the whirlwind second act.

Peter Filichia writes in the Asbury Park Press:

Straight Flush

This time Rob won’t get robbed.

Last season, Rob McClure made quite an impression on Broadway – and quite a name for himself – for playing the title role in “Chaplin.” Yes, a Tony nomination is always an excellent reward, but the Millburn native should have won.

Now McClure has the lead in “Honeymoon in Vegas” at his hometown’s Paper Mill Playhouse. As was the case with “Chaplin,” the superb song ’n’ dance man is rarely off-stage and is thoroughly winning every second he’s on it.

McClure is expert on how long to wait for a laugh before restarting the show, which he effortlessly carries on his shoulders. When the show moves to Broadway, put your money on him to take home the prize this time.

All right, “Honeymoon in Vegas” hasn’t yet announced that it’s coming to New York. But with a few musical theaters currently available on the Great White Way, any one of them should welcome this funny but never vulgar slam-bang musical comedy.

McClure has the role that Nicolas Cage originated in the 1992 film. True, those two actors are nothing alike. Cage is cool and beefy, while McClure is hot-blooded and wiry.

He certainly knows how to hot-wire the role of Jack Singer, who promised his dying mother that he wouldn’t marry. (She was intent on being the only woman in his life, you see.)

Jack’s falling madly in love with Betsy Nolan has made that promise terribly hard to keep. They’ve been dating for five solid years, and while she’s been understanding about the promise, she points out in one of Jason Robert Brown’s most incisive lyrics that she recently attended her college reunion.

The musical would be 15 minutes long if Jack hadn’t chosen Las Vegas for their wedding and honeymoon. While they check in their hotel, they’re noticed by Tommy Korman, a gambler-slash-gangster who’ll slash anyone who opposes him.

Yet Tommy has a soft side, and still mourns his beloved deceased wife Donna. Once he sees that Betsy Nolan is a spitting image of her, he must have her — and never mind that she’s Jack’s fiancé.

Tommy is deftly played by Tony Danza, who now greatly resembles Frank Sinatra (even if he doesn’t quite sound like him). It’s inspired casting, for Danza has the likability needed for Tommy. Donna was a Madonna to him, and he’ll try to be the perfect gentleman in order to have Betsy love him.

Many movies that become musicals stink, but this one actually improves on the original. Andrew Bergman, the film’s writer and director, has stayed on to deepen it with a few added character traits and plot elements. He’s also wisely expanded the role of the mother, who is fortunately played by Nancy Opel, Broadway’s favorite crazy-lady character actress.

And because it’s Vegas, Brown has written songs that have that nice ’n’ easy swing. Tom Murray’s baton keeps the tempos apt, especially for David Josefsberg. He perfectly apes those lounge-act singers who know why they’re not playing the big room but try to keep secret their lack of talent that from the customers.

The song that Josefsberg sings about Vegas has lyrics that won’t please the Nevada Convention and Visitors Bureau, but the melody certainly will. Brown has also written a fetching fall-in-love waltz and a number of intelligent songs for Betsy.

She’s played with such loveliness by Brynn O’Malley that audiences will want her to be happy. But O’Malley shows the anguish in having to choose between Jack and Tommy: the laddie or the tiger?

Gary Griffin has staged the show in the way that great directors do with musical comedy: fast, slick and always fun. Denis Jones’s showgirl-tinged choreography offers the right snazziness.

Considering that “Honeymoon in Vegas” spends most of its second act in Hawaii, theatergoers will find that it’s two vacations in one. In each setting, what a marvelous tour guide is Rob McClure.

And there’s Joe Dziemanowicz at the New York Daily News:

No doubt about who’s the boss of the fun new musical “Honeymoon in Vegas,” now having its world premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J.

It’s not Tony Danza, but he adds a starry aura and a solo softshoe as shady gambler Tommy Korman. It’s not game and nimble Rob McClure (“Chaplin”), who plays Jack Singer, a marriage-phobe fighting to keep his girlfriend Betsy (Brynn O’Malley) out of Tommy’s paws.

The show’s big kahuna is composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown, a Tony winner for the sobering “Parade.” Brown’s brassy and breezy and ever-tuneful new score carries this romantic romp from Brooklyn to Sin City to Hawaii.

What’s that you say? Michael Dale wrote about us on BroadwayWorld.com?

Jason Robert Brown, most known for musicalizing emotional subjects like a Southern lynching, the crumbling of a five-year romance and facing the consequences of life choices, now, just for the moment, dumps the artsy stuff for a big fat hilarious musical comedy.

Honeymoon In Vegas, based on bookwriter Andrew Bergman’s original screenplay for the hit 1992 film, comes to the Paper Mill Playhouse in director Gary Griffin’s slick and polished, fast-moving production that has old-school Broadway smash written all over it. It’s a little Rat Pack, a little Don Ho, a little New York neuroticism and a whole lot of laughter.

After music director Tom Murray’s on-stage orchestra sets the mood with a jazzy supper club style overture (both the overture and the entr’acte display musicians in featured solos), a giddy Jack Singer pops out from under a yellow umbrella, dancing his way through a New York morning singing praises of his girlfriend of five years, Betsy. (“She likes hockey. No, I swear! / She likes guys with thinning hair!”)

Brynn O’Malley [is] a terrific belter with crack comic flair. …Jack’s Mom, whose spirit keeps popping up at the most inopportune moments, is played to the nutty hilt by Nancy Opel. The sentimental and morally corrupt Tommy serves as a perfect vehicle for Tony Danza’s knockout performance as a smooth and graceful tough guy who croons like a vintage saloon singer and even dabbles in a bit of soft shoe for his big second act number.

Bergman’s book is sharp with jokes and sight gags…But despite all the surrounding excellence, it’s Brown’s score that’s the star of the show, gliding from frantic New York rhythms to muscular Vegas jazz to touristy Hawaiian melodies and even a hard-rockin’ Elvis number.

But most impressively, his flippant lyrics continually offer both wry observations and flat-out belly laughs (one in Hawaiian) that entertain without taking focus from the desire for true love that motivates the three main characters.

They say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but what’s happening at Paper Mill oughta come to Broadway.

Want more? Check out James Feinberg at Baristanet.com. Or enjoy the lovely stylings of Hayley Levitt at Theatermania.com. Also, Andy Propst at American Theatre Web! Not to mention Bob Rendell over at TalkinBroadway.com. I’ll post more if they show up, but meanwhile: Get to New Jersey! You’ve only got until October 27!

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