For those who were weaned on Jackie Gleason’s sitcom The Honeymooners, there’s cause to rejoice. There’s a new musical based upon the 1950s classic characters, directed by award-winning John Rando (Urinetown, On The Town) premiering at The Paper Mill Playhouse in NJ.
The musical, with music by Stephen Weiner, lyrics by Peter Mills and book by Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss, follows the TV formula. Loud-mouthed Ralph Kramden (the talented Michael McGrath) is passed over for a promotion. Disheartened, he quickly gets involved in a new scheme – a jingle contest for a cheese company. Ralph enlists his best friend, upstairs neighbor Norton (Michael Mastro), to compose the music while he writes the lyrics. As usual, his long-suffering wife Alice (Leslie Kritzer) scoffs at his scheme and resents the $40 he’s paid to rent the piano.
On the TV show, Ralph’s get-rich schemes always fail, but in the musical, he finds success for a while when he and Norton are offered jobs with the ad agency that has accepted their jingle. The problem is that the cleverness of the jingle came from Alice, not Ralph, so ultimately we expect complications. Later Ralph and Norton’s friendship is put to the test when the creative director wants to keep Norton but fire Ralph.
When a TV show or movie is translated into a musical, the producers are counting on loyal fans to buy tickets. The applause that greeted the entrances of the four characters suggests this musical might indeed have a future. The Honeymooners has a specific target audience but I wonder if anyone not familiar with Ralph, his “shtick” and famous lines will enjoy the show as much as did the Paper Mill Playhouse audience. The mostly older audience recognized and even mouthed some of Ralph’s famous lines. (“Bang, zoom, to the moon.”)
McGrath and Kritzer are excellent imitating the nuances of the characters, especially Alice’s deadpanned sarcastic delivery and Ralph physicality. McGrath looks like Gleason and has captured his trademark stammer. Kritzer has a powerful voice that she eventually gets to demonstrate when she sings “A Woman’s Work.” The delightful Mastro projects innocence while he delivers many of the punchlines.
Where the show veers off is in the role of Trixie, the wife of Norton. On TV, she was a minor character who didn’t even appear in several episodes. Yet for this musical, the writers have created a second story arc about Trixie returning to burlesque. Laura Bell Bundy portrays the character and the juicy role gives Bundy a chance to perform several numbers. In fact, Trixie has more songs than Alice does and she even gets to perform the Christmas TV jingle. Although the role highlights how extremely talented Bundy is, Trixie becomes too important in the musical and the part could easily be trimmed.
It’s easy to see The Honeymooners moving to Broadway, especially given its splashy production numbers. When Ralph envisions his glorious future, the cast dressed as New York Society dances in his Park Avenue apartment. Suddenly they stop, asking why they should continue since none of his plans ever work out. Then Ralph explains that it is his daydream, so they can continue.
The original Honeymooners is about love, marriage and friendship, and this new musical reminds us of these themes. After the commercial has aired, Ralph and the others meet the real Jackie Gleason who is inspired by the Kramdens’ tales of woe. “Gleason” explains the title The Honeymooners, noting that it is a true love story, and the Paper Mill Playhouse audience clearly agrees.