If you needed any further proof that Jason Robert Brown is the greatest active composer of American musical theater, you’ll find it at Millburn, New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, where his magnum opus, “Honeymoon in Vegas” is playing through October 27th. This brilliant masterpiece combines Mr. Brown’s incisive sensibility and magnificent sense for music with the air and confidence of a great old-fashioned musical from the ‘30s or ‘40s. This is the kind of show that comes along once or twice in a lifetime, the kind you tell your kids you saw.
To clarify—“Honeymoon in Vegas” is good; terrifyingly good; almost too good. Everything about it—its beautiful, lyrically divine score, its self-aware, ridiculous humor, and especially its unmatched cast—is flawless. Based on the 1992 film starring Nicholas Cage and James Caan, the musical follows Jack Singer (the exceedingly talented Rob McClure), a New Yorker with a fear of commitment and a penchant for poker who’s convinced his mother (Nancy Opel) laid a curse on him on her deathbed. She demanded that he never get married, insisting that no girl could love him like his mama does. Mr. McClure takes this premise and runs with it, dialing up his deeply ingrained talent for hand-wringing and combining it with a manic energy and a devotion to his role that made me wish I hadn’t missed his recent Tony-nominated turn in “Chaplin.”
Meanwhile, Jack’s girlfriend of five years, Betsy (Brynn O’Malley, endearingly capable) has tired of waiting for him to man up and give her a ring (forgive the misogyny, it was the ‘90s, after all) and turns up the pressure, forcing Jack to take her to Vegas to get married before he can think too hard about it. Unfortunately, staying at the Milano Hotel alongside the happy couple is smooth, slimy (implied) gangster Tommy Korman, who, it’s immediately clear, will be both one of the most villainous and one of the most thoroughly enjoyable stage characters anyone has seen in a long time.
And played by none other than Mr. Tony Danza, who proves, with this absolutely perfect vehicle, that he is the closest thing this generation will ever come to Frank Sinatra.
His stage presence is slinky and cool, his dancing ability, as demonstrated in the entertaining, lounge-style victory number “A Little Luck,” is surprisingly exemplary, and his singing voice is breathtakingly gorgeous and unique. If “Honeymoon in Vegas” needed saving, Tony Danza would be the man to do it. Since the musical functions pretty well on its own, though, Mr. Danza functions as, say, three or four feet of icing on an eight-foot-tall cake. His character is just as delicious. Unluckily for Betsy, she bears an uncanny resemblance to Tommy’s deceased wife, whose passion for tanning led to her untimely demise. (The tragic story is rendered sweetly comic by one of Mr. Brown’s stronger numbers, “Out of the Sun.”) Tommy hatches a plan that ends with Jack owing him $58,000, and suggests Jack pay him back by letting him have one weekend alone with Betsy. Jack has no choice, but spends the rest of the musical chasing down Tommy to try to get Betsy back.
Sinatra is actually a relevant comparison here, because many of the numbers seem inspired by Rat-Pack era Vegas. The score—uniquely for a tryout musical—has not one dud or misplaced number. It’s packed with nothing but the kind of lyrically masterful, catches-in-your-head kind of numbers that Sammy Cahn and Paul Anka wrote for Frank in the sixties.
The quality is similar, too—Mr. Brown has a way with the interaction of lyrics and music that makes every one of his new number sound like old standards. I truly wish I could list them all and specify their perfection line by line (some more Danza-fronted numbers come to mind, plus an ingenious one involving airport attendants and an uplifting one featuring flying Elvises), but I fear I haven’t the space. Perhaps the most central to the score, though, and also probably the best, was the funny, fun, and altogether outstanding “When You Say Vegas,” sung by the extraordinarily talented David Josefsberg as a classic sleazy lounge singer named Tony Rocky. (Mr. Josefsberg also later plays the main Elvis, an instant mentor to Jack—and boy, does he do it well.) “When You Say Vegas” is so catchy that it’s easy to find it stuck in your head days after the performance, and its near-explosive, joyous energy is really the reason “Honeymoon” succeeds. With actors like McClure, Josefsberg, and Danza, and songs like these, it’s pretty clear that Paper Mill is just the beginning of this show’s journey. The final line of “When You Say Vegas” may be “Lead the way to Las Vegas, the land where dreams come true,” but Tony Rocky may do better to ask the way to Broadway. You don’t need a Vegas fortune-teller to see a third kind of Tony in “Honeymoon in Vegas’s” future.