First Nighter: Tony Danza, Honeymoon in Vegas Pay Off

(Reviewer's note: I covered Honeymoon in Vegas when it tried out at Millburn's Paper Mill Playhouse in 2013. Taking into account the improvements inserted for its transfer to Manhattan's Nederlander, I'm rerunning the previous notice.)

Tony Danza on stage -- or anywhere, for that matter -- is just about impossible to dislike. This show-biz given is both a boon and a problem for Honeymoon in Vegas, the genuinely entertaining musical adapted from the movie of the same name.

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 ever have the audacity to 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 $58,000 at the poker table to ostensibly tender-hearted crook Tommy Korman (Danza).

(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 pack 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 that finds her ready to tie the often postponed knot with Tommy instead of Jack.

Here's where a Danza dilemma arises. The former boxer, Taxi and Who's the Boss? lad acts, sings, tap 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 resembling his late wife, Donna.

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

The dancer that Danza isn't, McClure is. He's especially flashy in "Higher Love," when reluctant Jack is instructed on skydiving by the Flying Elvises (David Josefsberg leading Matt Allen, Grady McLeod Bowman, Albert Guerzon, Raymond J. Lee, Cary Tedder, Katie Webber). 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 laugh-provoking Opel does as well as anyone might be expected to do with the castrating mom. As Tommy's sidekick Johnny Sandwich, Matthew Saldivar is more than capable.

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. And never forget the on-stage band. Conducted by Tom Murray, it can get downright torrid at times, in particular throughout the rousing overture.

Busy songwriter Brown -- who's nothing if not eclectic -- has had his Last Five Years revived successfully only a short time ago as well as filmed. Then there was last season's impassioned Bridges of Madison County. Now it's this altogether different outing. 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. For Honeymoon in Vegas Brown has composed what could be dubbed a traditional Broadway score, and with its clever lyrics and catchy melodies, he keeps things and possibly exiting audiences humming.

At the end of the day -- and play -- you're on the upbeat Honeymoon in Vegas side. Though within Anna Louizos's colorful sets it may not be an extravaganza of the Newsies kind that Paper Mill sent across the Hudson a few years ago, it's definitely an extrava-Danza.