Slow Burn Theatre Company was established in 2009 with the express intent of producing contemporary, challenging musicals that few troupes in South Florida would attempt. Sure enough, it went out on a limb with its inaugural show, Bat Boy, earning the admiration of the critical community for its artistic and financial risk-taking, and audiences soon followed.
When the company moved its operations to the Broward Center a decade ago, it understandably broadened its focus to more mainstream fare, despite grousing from some that selections like Little Shop of Horrors and Footloose were too mainstream.
That brings us to Slow Burn’s current show, the underexposed and underappreciated Honeymoon in Vegas. It may not be a great show, but it is wildly entertaining and exactly the kind of show artistic director Patrick Fitzwater and his creative team should tackle to be true to that original mission. Plus, they deliver it with such passion, polish and pizzazz. Judging from this show alone, Slow Burn is now turning out the highest-quality productions of any company in the region.
Despite some of the best reviews that composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown ever received and despite it being based on a popular 1992 movie, the Broadway production of Honeymoon in Vegas lasted fewer than three months. Brown has been showered with Tony Awards (Parade, The Bridges of Madison County), but has yet to have a commercial success. As the king of Siam would say, “Is a puzzlement.”
Unlike his art musicals, Brown’s sound for this show is jazzy and brassy, particularly as the locale moves to Vegas. But he is a chameleon composer, so note his gear shift to island mellow melodies for the Hawaii sequences. I could have used a couple of straightforward ballads that would let us take Jack Singer’s plight more seriously, but you can’t always have everything.
As with the movie, the stage version of Honeymoon in Vegas centers on nebbishy, commitment-phobic Jack (ideally cast Nick Anastasia). Despite his opening number in which he insists that he loves Betsy Nolan (Gaby Tortoledo), the comely Vassar-educated schoolteacher that he has dated for five years, he can’t quite bring himself to propose to her. That is largely because his guilt trip-laying mom, on her deathbed, exacted a promise from him that he would never marry. Yet when Betsy threatens to break up with Jack, off they fly to Vegas with his promise to wed her at the nearest all-night chapel.
Jack’s intentions are good, but first he is drawn to a friendly (though crooked) poker game where he promptly loses $58,000 that he doesn’t have. No problem, says card shark and probable mob boss Tommy Korman (Ben Sandomir), just let me spend a weekend alone with Betsy, who is a live ringer for Korman’s dead wife.
So off she goes with Korman to his compound on Kauai, with Jack in hot pursuit. Andrew Bergman, adapting his own screenplay, throws in a few new obstacles, but concludes with a hunka-hunka deus ex machina, a half-dozen skydiving Elvis impersonators who pull Jack into their act. Their musical number is pure Presley, but it is the way it is staged by Fitzwater that adds so much to the fun.
Factor in lots of moving set pieces by Sean McClelland, eye-popping, glitzy Vegas costumes by Rick Pena, aptly garish lighting from Clifford Spurlock and especially Andre Russell’s location-setting projections and you have a spectacular production design that audiences understandably confuse for a national tour. The same goes for the swinging sounds coming from the 10-piece orchestra, conducted by Caryl Fantel, the largest band ever at Slow Burn.
Unless you were catching shows in New York during a very specific few months in early 2015, you are probably not familiar with the stage show of Honeymoon in Vegas. Just go and enjoy a story, a score and a Slow Burn cast that are remarkably entertaining. It is a gamble well worth taking.
HONEYMOON IN VEGAS, Slow Burn Theatre Company, Broward Center Amaturo Theater, 201 SW 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Through Sunday, Feb. 19. $49 – $95. 954-462-0222.