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First Nighter: Tony Danza Puts the Honey in Honeymoon in Vegas

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Tony Danza on stage--or anywhere, for that matter--is just about impossible to dislike. This contemporary show-biz given is both a boon and a problem for Honeymoon in Vegas, the not-bad-but-not-that-good-either musical adapted from the movie of the same name and now at MIllburn's Paper Mill Playhouse.

The 1992 comic flick, written by Andrew Bergman, who's done his own librettoing here--Jason Robert Brown does the tunesmithing--concerns Jack Singer (Rob McClure), a mama's boy, whose late mater (Nancy Opel) has put a curse on the lad, should he wed. So here's Jack in the Nevada gambling town to marry five-year fiancée Betsy (Brynn O'Malley) but running into complications when he loses $60,000 at the poker table to ostensibly tender-hearted crook Tommy Korman.

(Incidentally, if the summary sounds familiar, it's for a good reason. The 1993 Robert Redford-starrer Indecent Proposal followed some of the same routes.)

The plot upshot is that as a condition of settling the debt, the altar-shy sap finds himself loaning understandably resistant Betsy to Tommy for a Hawaii weekend that doesn't quite have the initial result Jack--if not the wife-hunting Tommy--has in mind. As a matter of script fact, the luau state has an effect on Betsy's state of annoyed mind that finds her ready to tie the often postponed knot with Tommy.

Here's where the Danza dilemma arises. The former boxer, Taxi and Who's the Boss lad acts, sings, dances, plays the ukulele. He's not what you'd call great at any of it, but he far surpasses passable. Underlying his grab bag of modest talents is his good-guy appeal. He's charming in large part because he's that eager to throw himself into any demands put on him.

As a result, he's so lovable as the supposedly calculating Tommy that by the time the second act gets under way and includes a Tommy-Betsy veranda scene echoing South Pacific's Emile de Becque-Nellie Forbush denouement, Danza advocates have to be plugging for Betsy to choose the seductive Tommy over the klutzy Jack and then stick to her choice.

This might not have happened were Bergman, Brown and director Gary Griffin careful about presenting Tommy as decidedly more manipulative than he is here, but it's plain they felt this isn't what you opt for when the adored Danza has been hired to do his thing(s).

For much of the action, he's the version of himself patrons have paid to see, Only then, in a couple of contrived late scenes--when Danza has won the crowd and earned his pay--Tommy is exposed as a fake, who'll do anything to snag a young woman who resembles his late wife, Donna. Even then he drops any hold he has on Jack and looks to be going into the sunset with a blond and buxom Vegas waitress.

Yet, thanks to Danza, Honeymoon in Vegas, scores moderately high on the entertainment gauge. And he's not alone in providing the occasional elevated moments. Though McClure, a Tony nominee last year for Chaplin, has to embody a jerky fellow that, unlike Tommy, is not readily likable, he's too good a performer not to lift a couple of numbers he's in to nice heights.

The dancer that Danza isn't, McClure is especially flashy in the number "Higher Love," when reluctant Jack is instructed on skydiving by the Flying Elvises (David Josefsberg leading Matt Allen, Grady McLeod Bowman, Max Kumangai and Raymond J. Lee). Choreographer Denis Jones does a right fine job of putting the line of Elvis Presley impersonators through their hip-swiveling paces, and costumer Brian Hemesath makes certain they have the right glitzy jumpsuits in which to swivel.

There's a certain amount to be said for other cast members, too. O'Malley's Betsy is a feisty gal, who puts up with more than any stalled bride should but never timidly acquiesces, and the ingenue can sing. Always amusing Opel does as well with the castrating mom as anyone might be expected to do. As Tommy's sidekick Johnny Sandwich, Matthew Saldivar is more than capable--though there's a focaccia joke attached to him that doesn't fly. And never forget the on-stage band. Conducted by Tom Murray, it can get downright torrid at times.

Busy songwriter Brown--who's nothing if not eclectic--has had his Last Five Years revived successfully only a few months ago and shortly has The Bridges of Madison County on its way. But for the moment, it's this. In the veranda sequence Danza and O'Malley swap choruses on a sweetly acerbic ditty called "You Made the Wait Worthwhile," and the raucous item the Elvises do packs clout.

Still, Brown hasn't done his best work here. Suppressing his frequent compulsion for propulsion, he's composed what could be dubbed a traditional Broadway score. Another way to put it is that too often it sounds like anything of second-drawer quality that might have been written in the '50s. The locale is Las Vegas, he writes "When You Say Vegas." The locale is Hawaii, he writes "Every Day is Happy in Hawaii." (By the way, set designer Anna Louizos designates the 50th state by putting an "Aloha" sign above an airport gate, along with a lanai or two elsewhere.)

There's a title tune, of course, but few ticket buyers near me as we left the auditorium were humming it. Also, as Mahi, a temptress Tommy assigns to Jack, Catherine Ricafort warbles the blatantly suggestive "Friki-friki" with its repetitious "f"s and "k"s. Which brings to mind the scantily clad Vegas showgirl in the first-act who's revealed playing a harp with various parts of her anatomy.

At the end of the day--and play--you can't really get angry at Honeymoon in Vegas. It may not be an extravaganza--the kind, like Newsies, that the Paper Mill can send to Manhattan--but it's definitely an extrava-Danza.