Review: Honeymoon In Vegas

2014-11-20 20.05.42I’ve been a fan of Jason Robert Brown since 1999, when I first encountered Parade, and in the fifteen years since then I’ve gone to see him multiple times in concert, have made the effort to attend every one of his local productions (I even flew into New York from Ireland just so I could see the original production of The Last Five Years), and bought all of his cds. Throughout this time I’ve always hoped he’d get the smash hit he deserves, and with the glowing review the Papermill production received in the New York Times last fall, I had hoped and expected that Honeymoon in Vegas would finally be his big success.

Not so much. Not as far as I’m concerned, anyway.

Now before I go any further, let me just say that this show is early in previews and could change a little or a lot before it officially opens in January. Since I paid good money for my ticket, though, I feel no hesitation in detailing my disappointment.

If you remember the movie, Nicholas Cage (Jack, played here by Rob McClure) and Sarah Jessica Parker (Betsy, played here by Brynn O’Malley) go off to Las Vegas to get married, and chaos ensues before they finally tie the knot. How come? Well:

  • Contrivance 1: Jack’s mother put a deathbed curse on him so he’d never get married.
  • Contrivance 2: When Jack and Betsy get to Vegas, gambler and wealthy businessman Tommy (Tony Danza) decides Betsy (who looks like his dead wife) is his soul mate, and concocts a ridiculous plan to win her away from Jack before they have a chance to get married.
  • Contrivance 3: The plan actually mostly works. Jack gets tricked into sending Betsy off for a romantic weekend in Hawaii with Tommy.
  • Contrivance 4: It all takes a bunch of flying Elvises to put everything back together again.

I know what you’re thinking. Geez Julia, this is a comedy! It’s not meant to be realistic! I get that, but here’s the thing. I like Jason Robert Brown’s music and lyrics because he generally incorporates thoughtful, intelligent, thorough approaches to character and song. Plus he’s funny. You do get a sense of how good Mr. Brown can be in Honeymoon in Vegas‘s opening number, “I love Betsy”:

I like dancing on the pier
I like Broadway (once a year)
But I love Betsy
I like visits to the zoo
I like opera — that’s not true
But I love Betsy

See? Witty, heartwarming, real. That’s his appeal. So upon reflection, it doesn’t surprise me so much that his humor and wit don’t jive with the outlandish, over-the-top plot twists in this show. Honeymoon in Vegas seems to smother Mr. Brown’s talent in jazzy faux-Vegas standards, or brash comedic numbers that only intermittently work. (What works: “Airport Song”, “Friki Friki”; What doesn’t: almost everything that Tony Danza sings.) One other interesting note: “I Love Betsy” brought down the house at a JRB concert I attended a few years ago. Same for “When You Say Vegas” (one of those jazzy faux standards I just mentioned). I actually think neither is performed as winningly in the show as they were in concert. Mr. Brown is an outstanding, charismatic performer; I’d have loved to see him in the show as the tacky Vegas headliner Buddy Rocky. (I suppose he has a lot on his plate with rewrites, though. Or, well, I hope so.)

I did occasionally giggle during the show, and some of the audience around me seemed to find it quite amusing indeed. But to me it mostly felt draggy and ridiculous. I don’t blame the cast. They do what they can. Mr. Danza is very charming and even manages a lovely tap solo at one point, even though his songs aren’t really up to par. But the real problem is that it’s very hard to connect with Jack or Betsy. Jack, as played by the very talented Mr. McClure, is nebbishy and indecisive and doesn’t really seem like he deserves Betsy, who basically just spends the whole show irritated at him for being so idiotic.

To be completely fair, however, this story was never going to appeal to me, because i think it’s stupid. (Shakespeare could have written this show and I’d still spend my whole review complaining about the plot.) However, I really wanted to see Honeymoon in Vegas succeed, and would love to see its many problems fixed. Or maybe I’m just in the minority and other folks will love it. Here’s hoping.

My grade: C-
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (I have to think they’ll shave this down to 2:30 or so)
Ticket price: $50 (TDF)
Worth it: No, but that I was happy to go to be loyal to JRB
Standing Ovation Watch: A smattering

Review: Straight White Men

2014-11-11 19.58.08Here’s what Young Jean Lee said about the Tony-winning Broadway play Clybourne Park in a recent New Yorker: it was “good, in terms of, you know, being a play, with a beginning and end and all.” The comment seemed so flip and dismissive (and kinda badass) that it probably set entirely unrealistic expectations for me in terms of Straight White Men, her new play at the Public (and the first Young Jean Lee play I’ve seen). Surely this show would be edgier, smarter, more uncomfortable, and all-around better than your typical middlebrow Broadway fare?

Well, I’m not so sure it is. But I’ll get to that.

First you need to know that it’s about three grown brothers and their widowed father spending Christmas together. These guys are jokey but socially conscious; caring but playfully aggressive with each other; smart but wary of intellectualism. The oldest, Matt (James Stanley), recently moved back in with his father Ed (Austin Pendleton! So lovely to see him!) and the central conflict of the play revolves around Matt’s brothers and father wondering why Matt has gotten so pathetic — i.e., living with dad, temping, lacking friends — despite his brilliance and caring nature. Is it the weight of expectations Matt faces as a privileged white guy? Is it his concern that he might be propagating the inherent unfairness in society just by succeeding? Is it crippling shyness?

If all that sounds heavy and pretentious and thinky: don’t worry. Straight White Men isn’t like that. In between the ruminations on what it means to be a white dude, there’s lots of joy — outlandish dancing, goofy singing, teasing galore. A good chunk of this play — much of the first two acts — is just fun (if a bit aimless) in its depiction of a family’s idiosyncrasies and Christmas traditions. 

But then there’s that third act. This is the conflict-heavy portion of the show, and the point when it went a bit off the rails for me. It might be Mr. Stanley’s performance as Matt. To me he came off as a shy, sweet guy, and nothing like the negative cipher his brothers and father continually attack. What’s so awful about living with a parent and temping for awhile? (I’ve done both of those things in my adult life.) I kept thinking “Oh my gosh, leave the poor guy alone!” His father even refers to Matt’s behavior (which has been nothing but helpful throughout the show) as “repugnant” at one point.  Perhaps if Mr. Stanley had put out more of a toxic persona I’d have understood where the others were coming from. But, as it was, I felt like this was a bit of a manufactured crisis.

Possibly because I couldn’t quite swallow the central conflict of the show; its ideas about what it’s like to be a straight white guy didn’t quite speak to me either. For example, the middle brother, Jake (Gary Wilmes) argues that when they succeed as white guys, it necessarily pushes others minorities and women out of the way. Maybe that’s true, but, well, middle class guys talking about white guilt doesn’t seem like such exciting drama to me.

Straight White Men is still in previews, and I think some of the kinks may get worked out in time. It’s certainly an interesting show, and I’m glad I saw it, but to be honest I liked Clybourne Park better.

My Grade: C+
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Ticket price: $30 (with Public membership)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: No