It has become common, of course, for familiar movies and television shows to be made into musicals. But I don’t know if any actor has ever channeled the spirit of an iconic performer as perfectly as Michael McGrath does, playing Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden in the new musical comedy version of “The Honeymooners.”
McGrath duplicates every nuance of the way Gleason spoke, the way he delivered a line, the way he moved around the stage. It’s amazing to watch. And it’s also just one of this production’s many strengths.
It’s hard to imagine this “Honeymooners,” which will be having its world premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse through Oct. 29, not being a huge hit. The question of it going to Broadway would seem to be more about “when” than “if.”
This play has seasoned actors in all its key roles, a Tony-winning director in John Rando, and clever, catchy songs by Stephen Weiner (music) and Peter Mills (lyrics). The dancers move, with abandon, to Joshua Bergasse’s affectionately retro choreography.
Book writers Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss make the musical feel like a super-long episode of the hallowed TV series: They recycle its catchphrases and even some routines, like Ralph teaching his best friend Ed Norton (Michael Mastro) how to play golf. But they also give Ralph et al. some new things to do, and come up with a great surprise twist, near the end, that I never saw coming.
At the start of the play, bus driver Ralph is expecting a big promotion. He doesn’t get it, but instead of dwelling on it, focuses on winning a jingle contest for a cheese company. He writes the lyrics, and sewer worker Ed comes up with the melody.
They win, and Bryce Bennett (Lewis Cleale), a hapless executive who assumes they are professional songwriters, hires them, for lots of money, as full-time songwriters.
Everything works out great for a while, until it all falls apart. Bennett, realizing that Ralph has no talent (while Ed is a natural), tries to break up the team, and Ralph and Ed are pitted, briefly, against each other. Everything comes to a climax at the taping of a TV show on which the cheese company is launching a new national campaign.
Ralph’s wife Alice (Leslie Kritzer), a shrew with a heart of gold, is skeptical of Ralph every step of the way. When he rents a piano, she says: “I don’t need an eyesore to clutter the house. I already have one. It’s called a spouse.” But she’s supportive when she needs to be.
I was wondering how the show’s creators would deal with Ralph’s threats of violence to Alice: Those moments, in the TV show, during which Ralph would threaten to punch her “right in the kisser,” or say “Bang, zoom!” while waving a fist, or threaten to send her “to the moon.” They have McGrath’s Ralph act in the same way while Alice seems utterly unafraid (as she does in the TV show), but also have Ralph and Alice both say they know Ralph would never follow through on the threat.
I’m not sure this was the best way to go — maybe it would have been better to avoid the issue totally — but this is perhaps the only thing in this production I would consider changing.
While Alice’s nagging can be a bit of a drag — sometimes it seems like she’s only there to deflate Ralph’s larger-than-life dreams — she’s got plenty of sweet moments with him to balance that. She also has solo number near the end of the show and it’s a dazzler, expertly executed by Kritzer. During some of it, she scat sings, like a jazz vocalist; it’s the sound of liberation.
In the show’s main subplot, Ed’s wife Trixie (Laura Bell Bundy) is given an opportunity to relaunch her pre-marriage career as a burlesque dancer, and has to fend off an amorous boss, Francois (Kevin Worley).
This is a bit of a minefield. The show is obviously intended as family entertainment, and even has enough Christmas references in it to make it appropriate for the holiday season. There are a few risqué jokes involved with this subplot. When Trixie remembers how Ed used to give her a single rose before every performance, for instance, Ed replies, “I had to. It was your costume!” But when we actually see one of the routines, Trixie, and her supporting dancers, end up with more clothes on at the end of it than they had in the beginning.
For decades, “The Honeymooners” has been revered as one of the best TV shows of all time. Its reruns are still among the most dependably entertaining things that TV offers.
How appropriate that it should also inspire one of the best musicals based on characters who originated on a screen.
“The Honeymooners” will be at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through Oct. 29; visit papermill.org.