Theater Review: ‘The Honeymooners’ at Paper Mill Playhouse

By Jonathan Spira on 23 October 2017
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The Great White Way is littered with the detritus of failed attempts to use the small screen as an inspiration for live theater. Some shows borrow characters, atmosphere, and tone, rather than plot, some completely eschew episodic reference, some adopt a satiric tone, while others build on an episodic reference and stake out new territory.

The latter is what the developers of “The Honeymooners,” which recently opened at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, have done, using the short-lived but iconic television show as the point of departure.

The original television series, developed by Jackie Gleason and based on a recurring comedy sketch on his variety show, “Cavalcade of Stars” that aired on the DuMont network and later on CBS, staked out new ground, portraying two working-class couples in Brooklyn.

In each episode of the series, the two male lead characters – Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason), a bus driver with a route on Madison Avenue and Ed Norton (Art Carney), a sewer worker – would typically concoct a get-rich-quick scheme that they swear will bring them untold riches while at the same time it also frustrates their long-suffering wives.

The book by Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss captures the essence of the characters and also borrows multiple lines and setups from at least one episode, “The Golfer,” which I happened to watch the night before to reacquaint myself with the show.

The musical doesn’t miss any of the catchphrases the TV show introduced into American pop culture, including such gems as “Bang, zoom, straight to the moon!” “One of these days … one of these days…,” “Homina, homina, homina,” and “Baby, you’re the greatest.” The boys’ characters, Ralph and Ed, are complemented by Jess Goldstein’s costumes, which nail the now colorized 1950s look and magically transport the black-and-white show into the 21st century.

While the television series took place largely in the Kramdens’ kitchen, the show goes beyond those three walls and Beowulf Boritt’s striking sets take us to Ralph’s place of employment, the Gotham Bus Company, a city street where Norton is working in a sewer, and the mid-century modern offices of the boys’ new employer, a Madison Avenue advertising agency. The agency had held a jingle contest for an Italian cheese that the boys won, which is the premise of the musical. Boritt’s set also evoke the opening title sequence of the series with the skyline and oversized moon, albeit without Gleason’s face as the man in the moon.

The audience eats this up.

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