Marriage is always a gamble, but Honeymoon in Vegas, which bowed confidently Jan. 15 at the Nederlander Theatre after 66 previews, raises those stakes to sit-com absurdity, with our dubious hero losing his about-to-be-bride to a crafty card shark.
The brand-new Jason Robert Brown musical, set to Andrew Bergman's 1992 film comedy by Bergman himself, is far more engaging than disengaging, and it rounds the pointy ends of its triangle off into a good old-fashioned audience-friendly show.
It takes two and a half-hours or so, but the naughty premise is eventually ground down to PG-rated acceptability. This is accomplished by genuinely witty, gingerly plotted scenes, a varied and consistently sprightly score and Charm Concentrate (otherwise known as Tony Danza) giving the devil his due as a soft-focused seducer.
Danza, with the highest TVQ in the cast, enters the show late — but spectacularly, walking slowly from the back of the stage forward, pretending to drink in the visual glories of Vegas while actually taking in the thunderous welcoming applause. (It's the neatest audience-participation trick since Glenn Close, eyes darting madly, imagined she heard applause every time she finished a song in Sunset Boulevard.)
Despite his hero's welcome, Danza is the villain of the piece — or at least a villain with an asterisk. His Tommy Korman is a high-roller in widower's weeds, grieving over his lost true love until he sets his sights on Betsy Nolan en route to a Vegas altar.
Her reluctant intended, Jack Singer, is a nebbish-next-door type working through his Mother Curse (a deathbed promise not to wed). Battle lines are now drawn. Korman becomes a snake in the garden of Vegas, running counter to the course of true love.
Before all is resolved, there is a visit to a garden in Hawaii where Disappointed Mothers go and an equally unscheduled skydiving excursion with The Flying Elvises.
A photo of Presley in full swivel marked the entrance of the after-party site, The Hard Rock Café, a few blocks away. Exotic blue-green drinks were waiting at the door. Rob McClure, who copped a Tony nomination last year for and as Chaplin, was still very much the jumping Jack as he manically made the press round of interviews.
"I joke that Jack is the pinball in the pinball machine, and it's pretty nonstop, but when you get that kind of energy back from an audience it's easy to keep going.
"I feel this is the type of show that delivers what musical comedy was created to deliver," he continued. "The audience leaves with a real sense of joy. To be able to provide that for people coming in out of the cold spending their money, to give them an evening that makes them leave feeling great — it's all I can ask for."
As the object of the amorous tug-of-war in the show, Brynn O'Malley was happy her Betsy didn't emerge "a doormat or a victim," but this, she allowed wasn't easy.
"We've had just endless, endless discussions and rewrites. It's a very careful needle you have to thread with some of her scenes. They have the potential to be very sexist. I think we don't let them get there. I think we keep them right in the pocket."
A brunette in real life, O'Malley looks radically different as a blonde from what she did when the show originally premiered at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2013.
"There was a photo shoot before we started the Broadway rehearsals, and we knew we weren't going to use the wig from the Paper Mill production because nobody liked it, so we had to make a decision for the photo shoot," she explained. "We ended up saying, 'Let's start from scratch. Let's not let even color be an issue. Let's look at all the colors and all the styles and just start from there.' There was no specific reason. I know everybody wants to have some good juicy story. There's really none. We just put a blonde wig on, and everybody went 'Yeah, yeah.' And then I found just as an actor — especially with Betsy — that there's something about blonde hair. You don't have to worry about being sweet. Your hair does a lot of talking for you."
Danza has waited a long time for such a tailor-made character to carry to Broadway. "This fits me like the suits they give me," he declared. "It took a long time to be able to do this. I couldn't have done it then. No way. I wouldn't have had the guts. The only way you can get to that point is do it over and over — especially singing. Singing, for me, was the final frontier. I got over that hump, and I feel like I'm really there."
Matthew Saldivar, as one Johnny Sandwich, handles henchman duties for Danza's character. "I sing a little bit, I dance a little bit, but no heavy-lifting," he said. "My character just tries to keep his boss happy, and that turns out to be a major undertaking because my boss has fallen in love with the hero's fiancée.
"There's a lot to be mined in this little show. It's a pretty straightforward story. It's a love story, and there's a foil and there's a caper. But within that, just as there is with each individual's experience in real life, there's a lot of dynamic to a love story."
The menacing mama whose strangling apron-strings reach from beyond the grave is hilariously advanced by Nancy Opel, as seasoned a character comedienne as there is. Her prolonged deathbed scene and the ghostly guest-shots that follow are a hoot. "All I have to do is stand up and say their words — or sit up, or lay down and sit up," she insisted. "It's so easy to be good in a show that's this good. And it's also easy to come to work with people who are so unbelievably nice." For this show, coming to work is a snap. "It's about a block and a half. I can do it in six minutes, maybe less." She resides in the building that Michael "Birdman" Keaton recently took a leap off of. "My daughter saw it and said I have to see it, but I haven't yet. Busy busy busy." You might think that David Josefsberg has an I-only-do-production-numbers clause in his contract because his dual roles (Buddy Rocky, a lounge singer that resembles a slightly mangy Tony Orlando, and Roy Bacon, the king of The Flying Elvises).
"They're sorta father figures who get to push Jack in the direction that he needs to go," said Josefsberg, "and get the greatest numbers in the show. As Buddy Rocky, I sing 'When You Say Vegas' to welcome them to Vegas, and 'Do Something' at the end of the first act to push Jack into action. 'Higher Love' is the big Flying Elvises number in the second act. I don't feel danger at all — just the danger of having too much fun."
He admitted that these roles didn't require a great deal of deep research. "I've been to Vegas quite a bit. and I've listened to lounge singers quite a bit. I know those guys. I know Wayne Newton. I know Robert Goulet. I paid attention to some of that stuff. I don't know any Flying Elvises, except Burton Gilliam, who played Roy Bacon in the movie. He I studied a lot. I don't have those teeth, but I try to smile as big as him."
Bergman, who directed the movie of "Honeymoon in Vegas" from his original screenplay, looked relieved to have reached and passed opening night.
"It was a great opening night," he declared. It was his second. His other was Social Security, which Mike Nichols directed and Marlo Thomas performed in 1986. "Every 25 years, I give you a nice opening," he cracked. He was in no hurry to repeat himself. "This one was ten years in the making, but, yes, I'll do it again."
Brown's contagiously listenable melodies are accompanied by clever, colloquial, fast-track rhymes that tip his inspiration: "Frank Loesser is the real model. He talks for the characters. Whatever they say, that's how he talks, and that's what I want to do. I don't think I could have done it when I was 20. It's something you have to grow up as a lyricist to be. I feel I've finally figured out how to do musical comedy lyrics." Bowing as a Broadway choreographer, Denis Jones just followed Brown's lead and supplied a variety of dances. "It's a blessing if you make your debut in a show like this," he beamed. "There are so many beautiful musical colors in that score."
Yes, he has his favorite dance, and it's not the exuberant "I Love Betsy" that gets the show off to a jaunty start. "The one that consistently makes me smile every night is Tony's tap dance. I loved working on that. Even when I'm out there scribbling notes and obsessing about my work, when we get to that dance, I start grinning like a fool.
"We knew Tony has been a tapper for years and really waited for the opportunity to share this gift with audiences. Going into this, when we did a workshop three years ago, he said, 'Oh, I tap, and I'd love to tap in this.' So we've always had that in mind for him."
Director Gary Griffin confessed love at first script-read. "It's fun because I love musical theatre, and — when you see a show that takes on all the things that musical theatre can do and plays with it and tosses it up in the air and has a mischief in with it — for me, it was just a treat to get to work on something that had this much mischief and play about it. I sensed that the process would be playful — figuring out, like, how the card girls would tell the story of what's in his hand, things like that. And we were lucky to get the people who had that same sense of mischief and play."
Jones is set to choreograph the upcoming Paint Your Wagon for Encores! and Griffin will helm a benefit performance of Brown's Parade with Jeremy Jordan and Laura Benanti Feb. 16 at Avery Fisher Hall. Then they'll resume their next new show.
"It's based on the Nashville TV series, 'Hee Haw' [1969-97], and I'm telling you it's brilliant," Jones trumpeted. "It's funny, funny, funny. Some incredibly talented writers took the characters from Cornfield County and have written a book musical. So we're working on that right now. We will do a production of it out of town in July. Original score by Randy Clark and Shane McAnally, who are multi-CMA winners." Danza fans were out in organized droves on opening night. Judith Light and Danny Pintauro led the "Who's the Boss?" contingent, and the "Taxi" alums practically constituted a fleet: Judd Hirsch, Danny DeVito, Marilu Henner, Carol Kane, Christopher Lloyd and director James Burrows. O'Malley's beau, a bearded Bobby Moynihan from "Saturday Night Live," showed, as did spouses of Light, DeVito and Brown: Robert Desiderio, Rhea Perlman and Georgia Stitt.
Also in attendance: Sophie von Haselberg and mom (Bette Midler); Vegas vet Regis Philbin and wife Joy; Kelli O'Hara, formerly of Madison County, and hubby Greg Naughton; choreographer Sergio Trujillo and actor Jack Noseworthy; Linda Lavin and Steve Bakunas; Jamie deRoy and Richard Maltby, Jr.; Vanessa Ray; and David Hull.