Jason Robert Brown can do much better than Honeymoon in Vegas. Brown, the composer of shows like Parade, The Last Five Years and The Bridges of Madison County, is capable of great artistry — his subtle shading paints a very complex picture in The Last Five Years, which was released as a movie starring Anna Kendrick this month. He’s equally adept at writing fantastic patter songs (‘One Little Step’ from Songs for a New World) and soaring ballads (‘One Second and a Million Miles’ from The Bridges of Madison County). He is, along with Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights, Hamilton) and Bobby Lopez (Frozen, The Book of Mormon), one of the most important writers in contemporary musical theatre.
So why did he pen Honeymoon in Vegas? It’s hard to pinpoint what’s most offensive about the show: its treatment of women, the creepy and slightly racist undertones, the surprisingly bland overall effect of the whole ordeal, or that Brown is clearly trying so hard to write the hit Broadway musical he deserves to have, and that he’s stuck with this mess of a musical.
Based on the 1992 movie of the same name, Honeymoon in Vegas follows Jack (Rob McClure), our nebbish protagonist, as he tries to work up the nerve to marry Betsy (Brynn O’Malley), his girlfriend of five years. He’s continually thwarted by the ghost of his long-dead mother (Nancy Opel), who insists that he shouldn’t marry anyone, because if he does it means he loves another woman more than he loves his dear mum. In a rare moment of confidence Jack and Betsy decide to elope to Vegas, where Jack gets fleeced in a high-stakes poker game. Instead of paying the casino owner Tommy (Tony Danza) the $58,000 he doesn’t have, Tommy proposes a different kind of exchange: Jack will let Tommy ‘borrow’ Betsy (who resembles his dead wife) for the weekend. Things go downhill from there.
In addition to the problematic premise that women are chattel who can be passed around in lieu of currency, the book by Andrew Bergman (who also wrote the screenplay for the film) has some other problems with women — it treats them as one-dimensional beings. All of the women in the show fit into three categories: Interminable Nags, Vapid Seductresses, and Cool Girls (à la Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl). O’Malley does her best to create a complex human out of the limited material she’s given to work with, but even she can’t escape the ball and chain of the terrible script that’s manacled to her Manolos.
The script also suffers from other implications. Presumably, the audience is supposed to root for Danza’s character Tommy — he’s never really made out to be a bad man, just an unlucky man whose wife died of skin cancer. Jack clearly brings all of his trouble on himself for trading his wife away to Tommy, but Tommy is presented almost sympathetically — because obviously it’s totally fine to be on the receiving end of that deal, as long as you’re doing it for “true love” (or just because she looks like your really hot dead wife). There’s also a cringe-inducing subplot towards the middle of the second act (including a musical number called ‘Friki-Friki’), which parrots Pacific Islander culture for a series of cheap and unfunny jokes.
In spite of all of this, Honeymoon in Vegas is still a rather bland show as a whole, the musical equivalent of a rice cake — full of air and lacking any flavour. The cast acquit themselves fine, but aside from O’Malley there aren’t any particularly engaging performances. While Brown is incapable of writing a bad score, the songs aren’t inspired or inspiring and they don’t bring anything new and exciting to the theatrical landscape, which is disappointing given the precedent Brown has established for himself with his previous shows
Honeymoon in Vegas is playing at the Nederlander Theater. For more information and tickets, see the Honeymoon in Vegas website. Photo by Joan Marcus.