If you’re into outrageous musical comedies, then Honeymoon in Vegas is the show for you. If not? I’d honeymoon elsewhere.
I can’t remember the last time I was at such a loss for what to say about a show. I honestly don’t know if you should run toward or away from Honeymoon in Vegas. It’s one of the more absurdist musical comedies I’ve ever seen. It is one huge compilation of random, campy moments, and yet all of that happens amidst a very clear (albeit insane) storyline (check out the clips here).
I suppose if you’ve seen the 1992 film then you’re likely better prepared for the plot than Matt and I were. The movie stars Nicolas Cage, Sarah Jessica Parker, and James Caan, and from what I’ve read of the synopsis, the musical seems to stay pretty loyal. But I mean, what?? This plot! Although, Matt did point out that it was similar to how he felt watching On the Town, which also has a relatively absurd play-by-play. So you gotta be prepared to just sit back for a wild and crazy ride. That’s kind of all you can do with a show like this. You can’t sit there with your critical hat on, or try to find the logic within the madness, or have a life-changing experience as it realigns your outlook on life. Nope. Instead, tap your foot, laugh with it (and at it at times), and sit there with the goofiest smile on your face. Because when you have Vegas showgirls, a dead mother’s curse, a song called Friki-Friki, Tony Danza tap dancing, and skydiving Elvises, what else can you do?
So the plot. A guy named Jack Singer loves his girlfriend Betsy (as he makes very clear in the opening number “I Love Betsy”), but he’s afraid to pop the question. Why? Because his mother’s dying wish (ahem, curse) was that he never get married. Every time he comes close, something goes terribly wrong. But when Betsy finally puts her foot down, they fly to Vegas to tie the knot. There we meet an older gentleman, conman Tommy Korman, who tricks clueless tourists into rigged poker games and walks out with thousands of dollars. He spots Betsy at the pool and falls immediately in love because she’s a dead ringer for his dead wife. He draws Jack into a game of the aforementioned poker, and when Jack finds himself out $10,000, Tommy says they can call it even if he can have one weekend with Jack’s girlfriend. Then they all go to Hawaii.
And that’s just Act 1.
I haven’t even mentioned the Garden of Disappointed Mothers in Act 2. Can we talk about this for a second? I don’t believe this scene is in the movie, but let me paint this picture for you now. It’s one of the few heart-to-heart moments in the show as we find ourselves surrounded by a bunch of women dressed as trees. Fog is pouring off the stage so that the first three rows can barely even see. I look to my left and see Matt crying in his lap he’s laughing so hard as we notice an old man in the front row stand up in the middle of the scene to attempt to see over the fog and then give up altogether and abandon his seat. It’s a ballad between mother and son, and you’ve got the amazingly talented Nancy Opel stuck in a tiki tree costume. The juxtaposition of these things has to be intentional, but I think we were the only ones laughing, sooo your guess is as good as mine.
Rob McClure, Tony nominee for the short-lived Chaplin, is great and well cast as nebbish Jack. Betsy is played by the charming and funny Brynn O’Malley. And as the sly con artist, Mr. Tony Danza holds his own, and boy, are folks excited to see him. Opel as Jack’s mother is sadly underused, not to mention Matthew Salvidar as Tommy’s sidekick. What a waste of his talent! I wonder if he had a song that was cut somewhere along the line.
I do, though, want to say, “Good on you, Jason Robert Brown.” First, for writing an Overture and Entr’acte (what happened to those, friends?) and highlighting the fabulous orchestra. But also, for writing this fun, jazzy, over-the-top music immediately following last season’s The Bridges of Madison County for its lush, romantic, Tony-winning score. It’s hard to believe they’re written by the same composer.
Honeymoon in Vegas starts off so strong. It’s campy and knows it. But when the characters head to Vegas, I found myself less on board. It was like a game of tug-of-war; I kept giving up, and then the most insane thing would happen, and I’d find myself smiling. And then I’d get fed up all over again. I try to avoid quoting other critics, but I think Ben Brantley hits it on the head in his (note: incredibly positive) review from the Papermill Playhouse run: “It’s a swinging hymn to laid-back outrageousness.”
And as my pal Matt put it, “I had fun!! Do I think it’s a good musical?…No.”
Honeymoon in Vegas
Book by Andrew Bergman, Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, and Directed by Gary Griffin
Nederlander Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Tony Danza and Rob McClure and the Cast of Honeymoon in Vegas
Urinetown the Musical has been on my mind of late. A couple of weekends ago, I revisited the cast recording on a long drive home from a wedding with my pal Neil. Then last week I watched a full bootleg of the original cast that’s available on YouTube. And now I can’t stop thinking about how damn good it was. Which brings me to a new segment I’ve entitled “Oldies but Goodies!”
Because why shouldn’t we revisit old shows that we adore? Musicals that I still wonder if they’ll ever be topped. Urinetown changed my young 17-year-old mind about what musicals could be. I had never seen anything like it. I’d grown up on stuff like Les Miz, Miss Saigon, Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll & Hyde, anyone?), and as we’ve discussed, RENT. And then came along this tongue-in-cheek, insanely smart, dry, witty, entirely original musical that changed the forefront and future of musical theatre (as far as I’m concerned anyway). To this day, I believe that Avenue Q never would have won Best Musical in 2004 over a mainstream crowd-pleaser like Wicked had Urinetown not paved the way a couple years earlier, losing to Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002. And yet it won Best Director, Best Score, and Best Book…but not Best Musical? I mean, what? I’m not bitter.
Urinetown introduced self-awareness to the conventions of musical theatre, on top of the hilarious fact that the entire story was about a town where you had to pay to pee. It poked fun at the musical form in general without putting it down and tipped its hat to so many other musical genres from West Side Story to Les Misérables. Only later came shows like Avenue Q and Book of Mormon as now it’s very popular to reference other musical styles. This show also brought us stars like Hunter Foster, Nancy Opel, Jennifer Laura Thompson, and more. It was Hunter’s big debut in the spotlight, and the moment I saw the Tony performance, I fell in love with him immediately.
When I went to see Urinetown for the first time (in the front row no less), I think my jaw sat on the floor the entire time. I remember laughing so hard my face hurt, but I also recall being so stunned by the humor and wit that I was dumbfounded into silence. I went home that Thursday night and spent the next two days convincing my parents that we HAD to go. I would do ANYTHING. In fact, I believe I promised to read seven books that summer in exchange for tickets (I wasn’t a big reader in my younger days). So after talking their ears off for hours on end, I got my wish, and we went that Saturday afternoon. And I went again 10 days later. Aaaand proceeded to return four more times before it closed.
The story is narrated by Officer Lockstock (his partner is Officer Barrel clearly) and the precocious Little Sally. They commentate throughout the show, discussing the fact that it has a terrible title and premise. We learn about the conflicted dreamer Bobby Strong, the stalwart Penelope Pennywise who runs one of the public amenities, the misleading Caldwell B. Cladwell who owns UGC (Urine Good Company, clearly) and imposes the bathroom fees on the town, and his optimistic daughter Hope who inspires Bobby to take a stand. The music is chock-full with fantastic tunes, including “Look at the Sky,” “Snuff the Girl,” and “Run Freedom Run.” I must have replayed the phrase “just laughter and gladness” from “Follow Your Heart” thousands of times. The book has so many jokes it’s hard to catch ‘em all. Here are a couple of my favorites:
McQUEEN: Ms. Cladwell, what an unexpected surprise.
HOPE: Is there any other kind?
HOPE: They may not have taught me much at the Most Expensive University in the World, but they taught me this much: kidnapping people is wrong.
BOBBY: Really? They taught you that there?
All these years later, Urinetown remains one of my all-time favorite musicals, plus it’s on my list of top five productions that I’ve ever seen. And even though it was only a bootleg on YouTube, it was so nice to see it again.
Urinetown the Musical
Music and Lyrics by Mark Hollmann, Book and Lyrics by Greg Kotis, Directed by John Rando
Henry Miller’s Theatre, Closed January 18, 2004
Pictured: Jennifer Laura Thompson and Hunter Foster