Friday, September 08, 2017

Even If Not the Consummate Musical, 'Honeymoon in Vegas' Provides a Good Deal of Fun -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Honeymoon in Vegas
a musical
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru October 15

Something that makes perfect sense yet not readily considered until I read about it a few years ago is this:

Hollywood studios--and perhaps others who own film rights--actively employ people to market popular movies for musical theater adaptations.

In other words, it's no accident that those of us who pay attention to new musicals that hit the pre-Broadway, Broadway and post-Broadway circuits often find ourselves thinking, "Does every notable movie have to be turned into a musical, especially when many such examples wind up rather mediocre?"

Certainly, movies have long provided the source for Broadway musicals, and I'm sure the marriage has often been organic.

Talented composers, lyricists and script (i.e. book) writers always need fresh ideas to musicalize, and in the wake of--though also long before--The Producers, Hairspray, Billy Elliot, etc., the notion of creating musicals from movies with built-in brand recognition and (theoretically, box office) has proliferated.

Sometimes this has resulted in surprisingly swell new musicals--Legally Blonde, Sister Act, Kinky Boots, the latter based on a little-known British film--and sometimes not so much, as per Ghost, First Wives Club, Flashdance, 9 to 5 and others. 

Back in June, at Lincolnshire's Marriott Theatre, I attended a screen-to-stage adaptation I was rather dubious about.

The Bridges of Madison County, derived from a schmaltzy movie and the book that begat it, had flopped on Broadway despite the considerable talents of its composer/lyricists, Jason Robert Brown.

I can't deny wondering why it had been turned into a musical or why Marriott had slated a regional production, but with tremendous performances by lead actors Nathanial Stampley and Kathy Voytko, I found Bridges truly sublime and in my @@@@@ review proffered that it was among the very best shows I'd ever seen at the erstwhile in-the-round venue.

And I applauded Marriott Theatre for taking a chance on a film adaptation that had me skeptical.

So I was certainly willing to reserve judgment when a somewhat similar situation presented itself with Marriott's very next production.

Honeymoon in Vegas was a 1992 movie starring Nicolas Cage, Sarah Jessica Parker and James Caan.

I think I saw it just once, and while I vaguely recall it as cute, humorous and likable--due in part to a pack of skydiving Elvis Presley impersonators--I never considered it begging to be brought to Broadway.

But with Jason Robert Brown also enlisted to write the words & lyrics to a book by Andrew Bergman--who had written & directed the movie--and direction by Gary Griffin, a longtime Chicago area director who had previously directed The Color Purple on Broadway, it was in late 2014.

Though the New York Times critic Ben Brantley called it "a real-live, old-fashioned, deeply satisfying Broadway musical in a way few new shows are anymore," Honeymoon in Vegas, like The Bridges of Madison County, survived just a few months on the Great White Way.

No national tour followed, and in Lincolnshire Griffin is again at the helm, bringing along the show's Broadway choreographer (Denis Jones) and costume designer (Brian Hemesath).

To the credit of all involved, including the deft songsmith Brown, the musical is more likable than not, and far better than it could have been.

Though, ultimately due to the inability to rise above the inanity of its source material, the Marriott production of Honeymoon in Vegas winds up being far less glorious and satisfying than The Bridges of Madison County.

Still, as a solid piece of musical theater entertainment, it deserved to have the house closer to capacity, as is typical at Marriott but not the case this past Wednesday.

The super talented Michael Mahler--who wrote the music & lyrics for the Marriott world premieres, Hero and October Sky--here plays the Nicolas Cage role of Jack Singer, a New Yorker who proclaims "I Love Betsy" in the show's first (and one of its best) songs. 

Though wedding his beautiful girlfriend of 5 years--with the winsome Samantha Pauly as schoolteacher Betsy--would represent what they call "marrying up," Jack can't pop the question due to a promise made to his mother on her death bed.

Exasperated, Betsy convinces Jack their relationship is kaput unless they elope to Las Vegas, so they head to Sin City.

There, in part because she resembles his dead wife, Betsy catches the eye of casino owner Tommy Korman (Sean Allan Krill, who I've enjoyed at Marriott Theatre going back 15 years).

This is the role James Caan played in the movie and Tony Danza originated on Broadway, and
without overtly recalling the former or having seen the latter, I presume Krill plays Tommy as just a bit less of a slimy rogue.

And at least per outward appearances, many in the crowd might perceive Betsy to be better off with Tommy than Jack, though Mahler does a nice job making the latter a (mostly) earnest everyman (i.e. without Cage's movie star swarm).

Tommy convinces Jack to play poker with him, and as a result of her boyfriend's newfound debt, Betsy winds up going off to Hawaii with the rich guy.

I'm pretty sure what happens onstage largely matches the movie, including the flying Elvi.

Steven Strafford as Tommy's aide de camp Johnny Sandwich, Cole Burden as lounge singer Cole Burden (and also head Elvis Roy Bacon), Marya Grandy as Bea Singer, and a large ensemble support the three leads in making Honeymoon in Vegas a likeable affair.

But though many of Brown's songs are quite delectable--as in not only Bridges but Parade, which Griffin recently directed at Glencoe's Writers Theatre--hummable ear candy hooks aren't his specialty.

"I Love Betsy," "Anywhere But Here," "When You Say Vegas," "Betsy's Getting Married" and other tunes bring considerable delight through Intermission, but the silly storyline--including a sexy Hawaiian named Mahi (Christine Bunuan) and more nonsense with Jack's deceased mom--bog down Act II.

Even with just scant recollection of the movie, one finds oneself longing for the arrival of the skydiving Kings, and Burden and crew have fun with the Presleyesque "Higher Love." (Basically "Burning Love," but higher.)

So there are many terrific moments in Honeymoon in Vegas, which certainly delivers an enjoyable evening of entertainment.

But with a slight, sometimes banal narrative and a score that doesn't match that of Broadway classics often seen at Marriott, this isn't a Honeymoon that's entirely blissful.

I don't think it misbegotten that the movie got turned into a musical or that Marriott chose to stage it--and no one will be worse for seeing it--but what happens in Vegas, well, needn't always be spread around.

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