There are only 39 original episodes of the early sitcom The Honeymooners, plus some earlier sketches from The Jackie Gleason Show, but it has remained one of the iconic programs in TV history. With original stars Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, and Joyce Randolph, the show portrayed the comic trials and tribulations of Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden, wife Alice, and their neighbors Ed and Trixie Norton.
Now, The Honeymooners has been adapted into a musical comedy, currently on view at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, through October 29.
Ralph (Michael McGrath) and his pal Ed (Michael Mastro) decide to join forces in a jingle-writing contest for Faciamatta’s Mazzeroni cheese. They win and enter the fast-paced world of Madison Avenue advertising, where their quest to rise from their modest Chauncey Street life might cost them their friendship.
The plot, though new, is very much in the spirit of the TV series, with familiar touches throughout. There’s Ralph in the 1920s golf outfit practicing his swing, figuring he’ll have to rub elbows with colleagues on the golf course, a skill not required of a bus driver. We see Norton, space helmet in place, eagerly “blasting off” with “Captain Video,” a kids show of the early 50s. There’s Norton’s elaborate routine of loosening up endlessly, hands fluttering, before hitting the keys of the piano, much to Ralph’s frustration. And, of course, there’s the affectionate bickering between Ralph and Alice (Leslie Kritzer).
What has made the TV show last is the carefully drawn characters with universal flaws, quirks, and dreams, and the casting of these characters in the musical is letter perfect. Mr. McGrath almost eerily channels Gleason as Kramden in his angry outbursts, braggadocio, tenderness with Alice, and mannerisms. He’s even mastered that Gleason trademark of looking down, rubbing his hand over his face, and looking sheepish when Ralph’s gone too far. This is an amazing performance. Not only does McGrath bear a resemblance to Gleason, but he also is a very good singer, more than ably selling the songs by Stephen Weiner and Peter Mills. He even takes part in some of the dance numbers.
As Alice, Ms. Kritzer captures the affectionate, sardonic delivery that we recall from TV. Alice endures Ralph’s schemes, supports him through thick and thin, tolerates the boy in him, and loves the man. She has a showstopper of a number in Act II’s “A Woman’s Work,” in which she belts an anthem about standing by your man as she goes up the stairs of a subway. Her comic duet with Mr. McGrath, “To the Moon,” uses Ralph’s catchphrase to show the devotion of the couple. Ms. Kritzer and Mr. McGrath have excellent on-stage chemistry, making their relationship believable.
Mr. Mastro received applause at his first appearance at the opening night performance mostly because he’s so perfect as Ed. Long and rubbery in the T-shirt, vest, and battered hat of the merry sewer worker, he channels Art Carney’s great sidekick character. In “Undeniable,” he and Trixie sing about their love for one another and, along with Mr. Mc Grath, announces that they are “King of the Castle,” those castles being modest Brooklyn walk-up apartments.
Trixie (Laura Bell Bundy) is fleshed out far more on stage than she was on TV. In the stage version, Trixie performed in burlesque before marrying Ed. In fact, he met her for the first time after seeing her in a show. This background enables the writers to incorporate Trixie into several musical numbers and feature her in a sub-plot. Ms. Bundy has the task of conveying the vivacious showgirl as well as the Bensonhurst housewife, and she delivers on both counts.
Lewis J. Stadlen offers some comic highlights as Old Man Faciamatta, who prides himself on the cheese he makes and can smell at great distances. He heads the production number “Infine la Felicita” accompanied by chorus girls in traditional Italian costumes, a huge Italian flag, and a snappy tarantella. In a funny show, Mr. Stadlen is the icing on the cake.
Beowulf Boritt has recreated the Kramden kitchen, the primary set of the TV show, with its uncurtained window, old-fashioned sink, and simple table. The production design gets more glitzy when Trixie stars in a live commercial on the “Cavalcade of Stars.”
The songs by Weiner and Mills are Golden Age Broadway caliber and highlight specific facets of the characters while making witty observations along the way. Mr. Mills’ lyrics are especially clever and make apt use of Ralph’s many catch-phrases, including “Baby, you’re the greatest.”
The choreography by Joshua Bergasse features a talented ensemble who play dancing bus drivers, tap-dancing chorus boys, flannel-suited ad men, and others.
There’s always concern when a property so loved by so many is adapted for a remake or another medium. In this case, fans of the series need not worry. Under John Rando’s direction, this is an affectionate look, in the form of an old-fashioned musical, at beloved characters.
The Honeymooners will run through October 29. Performances are Wednesdays at 7:30 P.M., Thursdays at 1:30 and 7:30 P.M., Fridays at 8 P.M., Saturdays at 1:30 and 8 P.M., and Sundays at 1:30 and 7 P.M. Tickets prices start at $34 and may be purchased by calling (973) 376-4343, or at the Paper Mill Playhouse box office at 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn, or online at www.papermill.org.