Since my all-time favorite TV series is "The Honeymooners", the legendary sitcom that was originally broadcast in 1950s, one might think I would have been overjoyed at the prospect of seeing the show's new incarnation as a big-budget musical production that just premiered at the prestigious Papermill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, a venue so revered that it was honored with a special Tony award. In reality, I had considerable trepidation about seeing the show. The characters in the TV series- bus driver Ralph Kramden, his devoted but long-suffering wife Alice and their best friends, sewer worker Ed Norton and his wife Trixie- have been ingrained in the minds of every American baby boomer. In fact, the re-runs have rarely left the New York airwaves even sixty years after their original airings and the four main cast members- Jackie Gleason, Audrey Meadows, Art Carney and Joyce Randolph- are all permanently enshrined as pop culture icons. It's for precisely that reason that I feared the new stage production would be less an homage than a ripoff, created by people who have no real feel for the show. We've certainly seen this occur before, especially in translating classic television series to feature films. Thus, I'm happy to report that the musical stage version of "The Honeymooners" is a success that will almost certainly please even the most die-hard fans of the show. Tickets are selling rapidly due to good reviews and word-of-mouth. Cinema Retro attended the October 8 performance, which coincided with a press night and cast and crew after party.
The plot fits snugly into the type of scenario found in any of the T.V. episodes: the working class Kramden (Michael McGrath) and his best friend Ed Norton (Michael Mastro) engage in one of their generally doomed get-rich-quick schemes, this time submitting a jingle for an advertisement promoting a brand of cheese. Lo and behold they actually win and before long are being wooed to join an advertising agency, with the promise of sky-high salaries. As you might imagine, Ralph starts scouting luxury apartments in midtown Manhattan before he's even earned his first paycheck, much to the chagrin of Alice (Leslie Kritzer). Meanwhile, a subplot follows Trixie Norton (Laura Bell Bundy), who has decided to return to the burlesque circuit in order to pursue her own career- a decision that leads her into the grasp of her lecherous boss, who surprisingly is not named Harvey Weinstein. (Trixie's career in burlesque was mentioned in one episode but never explored beyond that.) Predictably, the good luck that falls upon Ralph and Ed becomes a case of "be careful what you wish for", as they are subjected to seedy Madison Avenue executives, a devious boss (Lewis Cleale) and a grumpy sponsor (Lewis J. Stadlen) who expects a great jingles on the spur of the moment. The new-found success also causes a strain on Ralph and Ed's friendship.
Joyce Randolph and cast members Michael Mastro, Laura Bell Bundy, Michael McGrath and Leslie Kritzer are joined by Brian Carney (right), son of Art Carney at the afterparty. (Photo copyright Cinema Retro. All rights reserved).
The show's book is written by Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss, both of whom are obviously fans of the T.V. series, as evidenced by the peppering of references to classic episodes that left the audience delighted. The script presents plenty of zingers associated with the characters, each of of whom is expertly portrayed by their modern counterparts. McGrath and Mastro do masterly work, evoking all of the character traits of Gleason and Carney and even bearing a substantial resemblance to the comedy legends (though McGrath reportedly wears padding to match Gleason's chubby physique.) Leslie Kritzer is highly impressive, channeling Audrey Meadows even as Laura Bell Bundy creates a new interpretation of Trixie that benefits from the fact that the script emphasizes the character far more than the T.V. series did. (Though purists might growl about Trixie's sultry dance number). All of these are extremely talented young actors and they do yeoman work. (McGrath is Tony winner and Bundy is a Tony nominee.) The supporting cast is also first-rate. The musical score by Stephen Weiner and lyrics by Peter Mills are impressive even if no breakthrough numbers emerge that will have you humming when you leave the theater. The entire enterprise is creatively directed by another Tony winner John Rando, who keeps the pace lively despite the fact that the show is a bit overlong. The choreography by Joshua Bergasse is very creative but there are at least a couple of musical numbers that could be trimmed without causing any negative impact on the show. There are also missed opportunities: the production practically calls out for some reference to the Huckabuck and Mambo dances that feature prominently in two of the best episodes, but which are nowhere to be seen. (A Huckabuck skit was originally included but was cut from the finished production. Time for the producers to rethink that one) and I don't recall hearing the iconic theme from the T.V. series, "Melancholy Serenade", which was composed by Jackie Gleason. I must confess that I'm not a proponent of turning non-musical properties into big, lavish musical stage productions. The writing in "The Honeymooners" is good enough to have carried the show perhaps as a 90 minute comedy sans music and intermission. However, there is no doubt that the audience relished the songs and the reaction was overwhelmingly good. I should also mention that it was a wise decision to keep the story set in the 1950s and the impressive sets evoke a real feel for the show, including the legendary Kramden kitchen where most of the action in the T.V. series took place. There is also a very creative aspect to the final moments of the show with the introduction of a surprise plot device focusing on "Cavalcade of Stars", the program where "The Honeymooners" was introduced as a series of periodic sketches before it became a regular series. It makes for a delightful finale. Most importantly, like the T.V. show, this version of "The Honeymooners" isn't just a litany of one-liners. It has heart and real emotion, as it explores the value of relationships.
(Photo: Evan Zimmerman)
I attended the performance in the company of Joyce Randolph, who is an old friend and the only surviving member of the original "Honeymooners". Joyce, who would have no problem voicing disapproval, gave the show a big thumb's up- and if it's good enough for Trixie Norton, it will surely please the legions of fans who are salivating to see it. Don't panic if you can't get tickets. Like so many of the hit shows that have world premieres at the Papermill Playhouse, there's talk of moving "The Honeymooners" to Broadway, a development that even Ralph Kramden couldn't dream of.
CLICK HERE FOR TICKET INFORMATION FOR THE SHOW, WHICH RUNS THROUGH OCTOBER 29.
(CONTINUE READING FOR MORE PHOTOS FROM THE PRESS NIGHT)