Would you bet against Tony Danza? I sure wouldn’t, certainly not in a vehicle as full of cheesy goodness as “Honeymoon in Vegas,” which just opened at the Nederlander Theatre following a well-received world premiere at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. All the leads are back for the Broadway run.
Adapted from the 1992 film, which it occasionally turns on its head, “Vegas” tells the story of Jack Singer (Rob McClure of “Chaplin”), a Brooklyn fella afraid his marriage will disappoint his mother even though she’s been dead for 10 years.
Jack summons the nerve to propose to girlfriend Betsy (Brynn O’Malley, last seen as Grace Farrell in “Annie”), but his plans are interrupted on a visit to Sin City, when smooth-talking gambler Tommy Korman (Tony Danza) decides the pretty schoolteacher should be his.
The musical has a book by Andrew Bergman, who also wrote and directed the movie, and a -- ka-ching -- jackpot-winning score by “Bridges” and “Last Five Years” composer Jason Robert Brown.
Danza’s Tommy has the sad wisdom of a man whose heart has been irrevocably broken. Dark Danza is not. Even when Tommy engages in a dirty trick that sets the convoluted plot in motion, it feels oddly forgivable in Danza’s hands; there’s an argument to be made that Tommy should be at least somewhat threatening.
The lovable goofball from “Taxi” and father-figure of “Who’s the Boss” is a guy so darn endearing that he’s drumming up support for the musical comedy by hanging around the TKTS booth in Times Square and telling interested theatergoers they can call him "a bum" afterward if they’re disappointed.
Tony Danza could sucker punch the conductor halfway through the overture and you’d still root for him. He does no such thing in “Vegas,” of course. Rather, the actor, 63 and aging better than most of us will, engages in crowd-pleasing, low-impact tap dancing, strums a ukulele and makes a valiant effort at singing (the show’s big numbers aren’t written with him in mind).
As it is, the most killer thing about Danza is his threads. His performance, eminently enjoyable, at times left me rooting for him to get the girl. That was unexpected -- and frankly I’m on the fence about whether it helps the show’s prospects.
Meanwhile, the hero, a mama’s boy who self-identifies as a “schmuck,” is played by the equally likable McClure, a Tony nominee for his work in the 2012 silent film star bio-musical, who in “Vegas” has the advantage of appearing in a role in which being likable is, at least, an asset.
McClure sells this show every moment he’s on stage, particularly during the climactic scene set on an airplane that’s been chartered by a group of flying Elvis impersonators.
As Betsy, the schoolteacher eager for Jack to put a ring on it already, O’Malley has all the best qualities of a leading lady.
The supporting cast members are stand-outs. Tony nominee Nancy Opel (“Urinetown”), as the ghost of Jack’s shrewish mother, enjoys one of the more eyebrow-raising entrances Broadway’s seen in a while. David Josefsberg does gut-busting work in dual roles as Vegas lounge singer Buddy Rocky and “Flying Elvis” Roy Bacon.
Composer Brown has crafted an exceptional score, particularly in its more morbid incarnations, such as when Danza sings “Out of the Sun,” a delightfully absurd paean to his late wife, who died of skin cancer: “I was a fool—so blind and deaf/I might have saved her with a higher S.P.F.”
“I Love Betsy,” meanwhile, is as charming a curtain-raiser as I’ve seen this millennium, with its instantly recognizable urban homages, down to the D’Agostino delivery cart. Brown’s legion of fans are apt to consider this one of his finer achievements, in spite of the source material’s garish qualities.
The story pings and pongs from Brooklyn to Vegas, then Hawaii and back to Vegas, with video projections doing much of the heavy lifting. Under the zippy direction of Gary Griffin (“The Color Purple”), it comes in at about 2:30, yet doesn’t overstay its welcome. “Vegas” ends up feeling a lot like “Bullets Over Broadway”—it will undoubtedly appeal to the same audience—though at the end of the day this new musical has the benefit of a novel original score.
Danza is such a nice guy that I began to wonder if “Vegas” would turn out differently than a musical like this “should.” The ending may or may not be a foregone conclusion, but I doubt anyone’s shaking down Danza at the stage door and looking for a refund.
“Honeymoon in Vegas,” with an open-ended run at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St. Tickets: $77.75-$161.75. Call 866-870-2717.