The new musical Honeymoon in Vegas is a throwback, and not just because it’s based on a 1992 movie that was, even then, somewhat retrograde in its humor. Cancel the “somewhat”: The plot hinges on a man trying to discharge a gambling debt by pimping out his fiancée. Presumably, the backwardness of this affectionate glance at ring-a-ding-dingism was intentional; the screenplay by Andrew Bergman, who also directed, mines its humor from the kind of character who would exact such a deal (a slimebag named Tommy Korman) and the kind of character who would accept it (a commitment-phobic mama’s boy named Jack Singer). Naturally, the girl herself, Betsy Nolan, though the apex of the triangle, was not so interesting. She was just hot.
Turning this material into a Broadway musical was bound to add yet another layer of irony, but when applied well and rubbed hard, a good lacquer can bring up quite a shine. At times Honeymoon in Vegas, particularly in its swinging Rat Pack score by Jason Robert Brown, is a jolting reminder of the very entertaining, somewhat risqué musicals of the 1950s and 1960s, the kind that saw their job as little more than appealing to tired businessmen by providing a tuneful pageant of leggy chorines and aspirational swagger. Like the chorines, the story would wear only as much clothing as was absolutely required: a bit of motivation here, a one-sentence lesson learned at the end. (In this case: “Grow a pair.”) The combination of camp and serious uplift that has come to define current musical comedy was not yet invented, and Honeymoon in Vegas is wise to avoid it; despite the lamé curtains and hot-pink finale it’s not trying to be a heterosexual Hairspray. It’s trying to be what Dean Martin might have dreamt in one of his stupors.
I’m not the right audience for that: I loathed Martin and didn’t care for the Honeymoon in Vegas film either. But I have to admit that many of Brown’s songs are terrific, filled with melodic and lyrical wit that hugely enhances the material. He knows how to write comedy numbers that are also character numbers, and character numbers that are also story numbers, so that the first quarter of the show — which, like that of any show, has a ton of work to do — moves remarkably fast. (Credit, too, to the director, Gary Griffin.) After a knockout overture we get, in swift succession, a charm song for Jack (“I Love Betsy”) that telegraphs how lucky he is to have her; a comedy song for his dead mother (“Never Get Married”) that reveals the source of his fear of commitment; and an ultimatum song for Betsy (“Anywhere But Here”) that sets up, and thus requires, the rest of the show’s action. Each is specific and taut, amusingly rhymed, replete with charm that is really charming.
Then too, as we arrive in Nevada for the couple’s elopement, the smarm is really smarming. A lounge lizard named Buddy Rocky sings a top-notch Cy Coleman–style number called “When You Say Vegas” that captures both the brashness and disowned sexual aggression of the genre:
Flash some cash, snag a front-row seat,
It’s a night that she won’t forget.
You might be in the desert, kid,
But a girl can still get wet!
There are many good numbers to come; just a moment later we are introduced to Korman with a hilarious version of a Sinatra blues, circa In the Wee Small Hours, only this one’s about Korman’s wife, who died of melanoma after spending too much time in the sun. (Brown knows just how to deploy a repellent word like saddlebag for maximum comic effect.) But it’s at this high point, halfway through the first act, that the pressure of the show’s multiple ironies starts to crack the surface. On the one hand, Buddy Rocky, who recurs throughout to sing the diagetic showroom numbers, has no business here: He’s not a figure in the story, just a kind of genius loci. On the other hand, Korman, who has a ton of business here — he rigs the poker game in order to win Betsy because she’s a double for his late wife — becomes dramatically untouchable once we understand his weird motives. The absurdity of the premise crashes through the quasi-realism of the book’s characterizations and slowly poisons whatever pleasure might be derived from the working out of either. By the time the scene shifts to Hawaii at the top of Act Two, and then back to Vegas for the famous flying-Elvis denouement, the tone is irreparably damaged by a kind of frenzy to avoid dealing with what we now sense is a very ugly idea.
Ugliness breeds ugliness: There’s a whole platter of Polynesian minstrelsy (including a song called “Friki-Friki”) to come, and even a lisping airline clerk. (Some 1950s throwbacks should be thrown back.) Just as music enhances what’s fun about a story, it enhances what’s creepy about it, too, and Bergman, who has stuck closely to his original screenplay in shaping the new book, hasn’t figured out how to solve that problem. By the middle of Act Two, when Korman does something much worse than make a move on Betsy, the writing can no longer encompass the contradiction of what it wants us to think of him, and were it not for Tony Danza’s delicate underplaying and general charm, the game would be lost. But Danza has a lovely if very careful baritone and aces his not-overtaxing tap dance; he thus walks away with the show. Rob McClure, mostly playing manic as Jack, and Brynn O’Malley, as a brittle, warmth-challenged Betsy, do not offer much resistance.
So Honeymoon in Vegas turns out to depend on the one element that wasn’t part of the original property: the score. (The movie’s soundtrack is mostly covers of Elvis hits.) Brown was the perfect choice for the job, one of the vanishingly small breed of post-Sondheim theater composers who are more than just post-Sondheims. Like the master, he’s a musical dramatist, but his song models are poppier and here sound great in arrangements and orchestrations (by several hands, including his own) that recall both mid-century MGM and Nelson Riddle’s Capitol years. But the gift of superb pastiche cuts two ways, and the reason Brown has not had a financial hit in all of his worthy Broadway at-bats (Parade, 13, The Bridges of Madison County) may be related to the reason his score for Vegas can’t completely rescue the icky raw material. We are still awaiting the fullest expression of his own voice, not the one he must force through other people’s stories.
Honeymoon in Vegas is at the Nederlander Theatre.