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‘Honeymoon in Vegas’ Theater Review: Jason Robert Brown Gambles on Andrew Bergman’s Movie

In this age of gross-out humor, the fiancée-as-payment plot is relatively mild. But smarm stills needs charm to work on stage

There’s an old Hollywood truism that good movies are made from second-rate books, not the classics. On Broadway, the new musical “Honeymoon in Vegas,” which opened Thursday at the Nederlander Theatre in New York, uses a second-rate movie from 1992 for its source material. Have its makers been able to turn it into a good musical? Or is this one effort that should have stayed in Vegas?

Here and there, “Honeymoon in Vegas,” the musical, is better than good, with most of the good being Jason Robert Brown’s very plentiful score, which shows him in a much lighter, less ponderous mood than his work on “Parade,” “The Last Five Years,” and “The Bridges of Madison County.” The indecent proposal that drives “Honeymoon in Vegas” — a man loses a bet and the creditor demands a weekend alone with his fiancée ­– is pure fluff, and Brown doesn’t attempt to write any big arias or anthems. He’s committed to writing a traditional Broadway comedy score, and he fully succeeds, offering up witty lyrics with the occasionally laugh-out-loud rhymes, as well as jaunty tunes, some of which are sly riffs on beloved standards. For instance, his lovely “Out of the Sun” begins with a nod to that Frank Sinatra favorite “It Was a Very Good Year,” but in the second verse, the song turns its sentimental streak into something very sardonic.

Brown’s score, however, can’t entirely disguise the wart of the show’s premise, that indecent proposal and a leading male character, Jack (Rob McClure), who is probably on the verge of being a 40-year-old virgin.

In this age of Seth Rogen gross-out humor, the fiancée-as-payment storyline is relatively mild, except for the fact that it isn’t always handled deftly either by the principal performers or the book by Andrew Bergman, who wrote the original “Honeymoon” screenplay.

In addition to losing all that money, Jack has commitment issues that stem from a dead mother who made him promise never to marry. A “Never Get Married” number is a hilarious flashback, inventively staged by director Gary Griffin, which has Mom (Nancy Opel) refusing to die on her death bed. Her ghost has a bad habit of popping up everywhere, in jewelry counters at Tiffany’s, on airport runways. It’s a good running joke until Mom, in the second act, appears as some Easter Island icon and stops the show in a not good way. This extended scene is preceded by an even more unfortunate number, “Friki-Friki,” which means “sex” in the Tiki-Tiki Land of this musical, and shows Jack being seduced by a native girl in a jeep who tries to prevent him from rescuing his fiancee, Betsy (Brynn O’Malley), who, in a change of heart, has now proposed to the billionaire creditor Tommy (Tony Danza), who is so happy and in love with Betsy that he tap dances to “A Little Luck.” The three-strikes law on Broadway means that your musical has been knocked out cold.

Who knows? In a revival 15 years from now, some radical cutting between “Friki-Friki” and “A Little Luck” could save the show, which manages to go out on a high: Jack wins back Betsy by sky-diving with a bunch of Elvis impersonators. Again, Griffin shows his invention, and the special effects are fun in an appropriately cheesy sort of way.

Sad to say, the show also needs some radical recasting. Smarm needs charm, and none of the three principals have the latter. Billy Wilder successfully handled an equally lewd subject in “The Apartment,” but he had Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. A few years later, he failed with “Kiss Me Stupid” thanks to Ray Walston and Kim Novak. Imagine “The 40-Year Old Virgin” with a lesser comedian than Steve Carell. Recently on Broadway, Sean Hayes served up the right light touch in “Promises, Promises,” playing another nerdy, non-alpha guy. McClure doesn’t delight, he just grins manically. O’Malley delivers one good silent comic moment, playing Tommy’s overly tanned dead wife, but as Betsy she is made up to look like one of the more desperate Housewives of Orange County, which pretty much sums up her approach to the role.

Danza can’t sing or dance, but he seems to be enjoying himself immensely on stage. It’s a kind of charm.

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