Anyone with a passing knowledge of — or interest in — Jackie Gleason’s much-loved 1950s sitcom “The Honeymooners” knows that one of its catchphrases is “Baby, you’re the greatest.”
The new musical based on the short-lived (just 39 episodes) but long-enduring prime-time classic orbiting around dreamer-schemer Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramdem seldom, if ever, rises to such a superlative. More often it’s “Baby, you’re just the okay-est.”
As the show at the Paper Mill Playhouse through Oct. 29 traces Ralph’s get-rich-quick idea involving writing a hit jingle, there are bright spots. There are four aces in lead roles: Michael McGrath as Ralph; Leslie Kritzer as his wife Alice; Michael Mastro as his trusty sewer rat BFF Ed Norton, and Laura Bell Bundy as Ed’s wife Trixie, whose little-mentioned burlesque past looms large. Each actor shines while capturing the mannerisms and cadences of the originals, which feels right.
The script by Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss, authors with many TV credits, smartly preserves sitcom zingers (“blabbbbbbermouth”), adds fun new ones (a neighbor’s response to Ralph’s noisy composing is a hoot), lends a corrective to Ralph’s iffy “bang zoom, to the moon Alice” threat and tosses a very clever 11th-hour curveball that turns the musical into a “Honeymooners” origin story. Director John Rando and a design team deliver polished work.
Alice and Ralph: He may wear the pants, but the musical, like the sitcom it’s drawn from, is clear about who’s really in charge in the Kramden household.
(Jerry Dalia/Jerry Dalia)
Songs by composer Stephen Weiner and lyricist Peter Mills do the job but don’t make much of an impression. Trixie’s bouncy entrance (“Undeniable”) lends some sparkle after a sluggish start. Alice’s “A Woman’s Work” lets the gifted Kritzer remind that behind every good man there’s a woman while she’s belting and scatting. The most tender moment (“I’ll Miss the Guy”) is a duet between Ralph and Norton.
But, like McGrath, who’s reportedly wearing a fat suit, the show is uncomfortably wedged into one as well. The musical keeps grafting concepts onto a simple idea that would have resolved itself in 22 minutes. On stage, Ralph’s jingle schemes lead to Madison Ave. dog-eat-dog business antics, Park Ave. high-life fantasies and eventually to the real-life variety series “Cavalcade of Stars,” which Gleason hosted, and a weirdly bloated and busy production number (choreography is by Joshua Bergasse) that’s led by Trixie that’s not even half as funny or winning as it thinks it is.
To the moon? With so much padding, “The Honeymooners” can’t get liftoff.