Fondly remembered for those Elvis impersonators parachuting to the Strip and saving the day for a Brooklyn schnook, “Honeymoon in Vegas” is the latest film-to-musical transfer looking for a Broadway perch.
It’s also the season’s second show by the extraordinarily gifted songwriter Jason Robert Brown, whose darker, more elegiac “The Bridges of Madison County” arrives in January after a run at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
“Vegas,” at the Paper Mill Playhouse, finds Brown in a lighter vein and well-paired with the facile author Andrew Bergman (who wrote and directed the 1992 film) and two charming stars: Tony Danza as a dangerously suave card-sharp and Rob McClure as his mark, a city rube.
Though the time is now, Brown gleefully summons the Rat Pack days of busty show girls and crowded casinos.
First we open in Brooklyn, where Jack Singer (McClure, a limber clown) is singing “I Love Betsy,” an ode to his girlfriend (Brynn O’Malley) of five years, as a rainbow of humanity passes by.
Brown’s ease with pop hooks and clever lyrics is evident from the get-go: “I like Shake Shack, I like MoMA/And New Jersey’s ripe aroma,” Jack sings. “Just like Jay-Z and Beyonce/I will make her my fiance. I love Betsy!” It’s exuberant and funny.
But a “curse” from his long-dead mother (Nancy Opel, quite alive in the toned-down, evil-mother role) has prevented him from marrying his girl. They end up in Vegas, where Tommy Korman (Danza) falls for her.
He sets up Jack to lose at a high-stakes poker game in which Betsy turns out to be the prize, leading to a weekend trip to Hawaii (too like the detour to Havana in “Guys and Dolls,” but no matter). Jack follows like a wounded puppy. Tommy plays hardball.
There are splashy dance numbers and the torchy “Anywhere But Here” for Betsy, while Danza does a convincing soft shoe and a not-bad imitation of Sinatra in the ballad “Out of the Sun.”
Best of all is McClure, rebounding spiritedly from the Broadway flop “Chaplin.” Brown has given him numbers in which to shine, including a finale that finds him in a cargo plane full of imitation Elvises with parachutes strapped to their backs.
“Honeymoon in Vegas” doesn’t always know whether it’s comedy or parody, a problem that mostly affects the character of Tommy: Is he a gangster creep or just a lonely widower used to getting his way?
But Gary Griffin’s fleet staging, Denis Jones’s stylish dances and a fabulous big band conducted by Tom Murray come alive in Anna Louizos’s typically cheeky settings and Brian Hemesath’s spot-on costumes. “Honeymoon” is a winner.
Through Oct. 27 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Dr., Millburn, NJ. Information: +1-973-376-4343; http://www.papermill.org. Rating: ****
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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