By Bill Hirschman
“Think of musical comedy, the most glorious words in the English language.”
. —Julian Marsh in 42nd Street
From Slow Burn Theatre Company’s brass-unleashed overture with a live 10-piece band, to an ebullient cast diving uninhibitedly into the hilarious and the heartfelt, to the winning music and witty lyrics, trust me, this musical version of the film Honeymoon in Vegas is the kind of full-fledged fully-entertaining classic musical comedy you thought no one wrote anymore.
I mean, how can you go wrong with a finale that includes a chapel wedding, the ghost of the groom’s mother appearing and a team of Elvis impersonators parachuting into a Vegas showroom?
You can be forgiven the skepticism: Who in their right mind would try to make a musical out of the 1992 film with Nicholas Cage, Sarah Jessica Parker and James Caan? Well, it was the film’s original screenwriter-director Andrew Bergman who was given some songs on spec from honored composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown, apparently a big fan of the movie.
By 2013, they had put together this delightful but secretly well-constructed piece of musical theater. Inexplicably, it only played a few months on Broadway in 2015, but produced an album. Fortunately, Slow Burn’s founders Patrick Fitzwater and Matthew Korinko have a well-documented affinity for producing shows that weren’t runaway successes but had elements worth revisiting.
This production takes its place in their scrapbook of successes complete with first-rate virtues—most visibly a trio of engaging leads, a rousing band and Rick Peña’s pull-out-the-stops costumes ranging from spangled showgirls in feathered headdresses to ancient Hawaiian goddesses made of stone.
Set in the canyons of New York City, the schmitzy glitz of Vegas, the resorts of Hawaii, then back to Vegas again, this tale of romance simultaneously lampoons the millimeters’ thin glamour and glitz yet clearly has fondness for Never Neverland, its full-time inhabitants and transient emigres.
To recap Bergman’s libretto, Jack Singer (Nick Anastasia, Seymour in Slow Burn’s Little Shop of Horrors) is an affable slightly schlubby urbanite who has been dating the gorgeous Betsy Nolan (an even more gorgeous Gaby Tortoledo) for five years with the promise of marriage. But we see in flashback how his mother Bea (Dalia Aleman) on her deathbed 10 years ago forced him to promise that he would never marry, as a pledge of devotion.
The patient Betsy is threatening to break up with the commitment-avoiding fool, prompting Jack to take her to Las Vegas with a pledge to get married immediately. Unfortunately, the card-addict Jack first gets suckered into a crooked poker game with uber-cool hotel owner, con man and likely mobster Tommy Korman (Ben Sandomir).
Korman will wipe out the $58,000 IOU if Jack agrees that Tommy can spend a supposedly chaste weekend with Betsy who is a ringer for Tommy’s late wife. After some protest and evasions, Jack agrees. The fed up and infuriated Betsy agrees as well. (Anyone remember Robert Redford and Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal?)
By the time we get to a happy ending, there are various cons, an appeal to ancient Hawaiian gods, and Jack in an Elvis costume at the door of an airplane at 30,000 feet.
Brown’s melodic score echoes an array of genres from smooth introspective ballads to ring-a-ding bada-bing pop to all-stops-out production numbers seemingly borrowed from a Vegas supper club—most with an affectionate poke in the ribs.
For you musical theater fans, this might surprise you since he is better known for the tragic Parade about the Leo Frank lynching (reopening on Broadway this month) and the gorgeous The Bridges of Madison County (which Slow Burn did in 2018 with Anna Lise Jensen). But Brown is also a veteran pit denizen as conductor, musical director, keyboardist and rehearsal accompanist accustomed to traditional tropes, so he’s familiar with a wide range of styles.
The music sweeps by so smoothly that you may not give sufficient notice to his imaginative lyrics that can be simultaneously touching and mirthful. One of the best is “Out of the Sun,” a romantic ballad in which Tommy reminisces about his beloved wife who died from skin cancer—due to an obsessive habit of sun-bathing.
Just a bit of it, again, imagine this sung with “It Was A Very Good Year,” like regret and longing:
But she was beautiful, beyond
Roasting like a chicken in her
Look at how the color of her hair
Changes as the day burns on.
She wore no Coppertone,
She wore no hat.
The doctors swore they never saw
Skin look like that,
Like a saddlebag.
The production is blessed with a terrific cast. Anastasia has that indescribable quality of that nice guy at the office who makes plenty of well-intentioned mistakes but who you’re rooting for. He’s got a fine voice and fine comic timing both verbal and physical.
Tortoledo, who has been supporting productions in the region for some time, finally gets the spotlight she deserves. She invests the drop dead lovely Betsy with the intelligence, vivacity and pure Broadway voice the creative team must have hoped for. In “Anywhere But Here,” Tortoledo embodies Betsy’s evolving decision to take action despite Jack’s embedded delays.
Ben Sandomir has been having a heck of a couple of years that he richly deserves including the leads in Sweeny Todd and Something Rotten at Pembroke Pines Theatre of the Performing Arts. Now, with that strong Sinatra voice, solid acting chops and a tap dance break, he gives the audience a treat as the martini smooth cool debonair Tommy. After watching him, it’s hard to imagine how Tony Danza played this role on Broadway.
But save some applause for Aleman as Jack’s dead mother who won’t stay buried; Anthony Caltado as the classic lounge singer Buddy Rock; Michael Cartwright as Tommy’s aide de camp; Melanie Fernandez as a Hawaiian lady of debatable virtue, and Emily Tarallo and Ashley Rubin as the stunning showgirls who seem to be on everybody’s arm any time the music strikes up.
And note the committed ensemble: Chris Alvarez, Evan Ross Brody, Jerel Brown, Daniella Castoria, Samuel Colina, Camryn Handler, Kevin Hincapie, Caiti Marlowe, Matthew Quintero and the chameleonic Michael Scott Ross.
All of this has been perfectly paced and arranged by director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater whose affection for this kind of work rings clearly.
But the success is equally due to music director Caryl Fantel leading this Vegas-worthy band that includes guitar, Greg Minnick; drums, Julie Jacobs; reeds, Diron Holloway and Rick Kissinger; violin, Liuba Ohrimenco; bass, Rupert Ziawinski; and that brass section, trombone, Jason Pyle; trumpets Michael Hankins and Abigail Venable.
The changing environment is thanks to master scenic designer Sean McClelland, lighting designer Clifford Spulock and projection designer André Russell.
There is no deep abiding message here, other than a celebration of second chances. It’s just a joyful, glittering good ol’ musical comedy.
Honeymoon in Vegas presented by Slow Burn Theatre Company through Feb. 19 at the Amaturo Theater, Broward Center For The Performing Arts, 201 SW 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m., Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Running time two hours, 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $49.00 – $95.00. Call (954) 462-0222 for tickets, at www.browardcenter.org or #Ticketmaster.com; in person at Ticketmaster outlets or the Broward Center’s Auto Nation Box Office. Info at www.slowburntheatre.org.