THE HONEYMOONERS: All Hail the Actors!

They must have watched each of “the classic 39 episodes” at least 39 times.

For Michael McGrath has indeed become Jackie Gleason’s stomach-patting Ralph Kramden as much as Leslie Kritzer has segued into Audrey Meadows’ dry-voiced Alice. Meanwhile, Michael Mastro is certainly Art Carney’s loose-limbed Ed Norton while Laura Bell Bundy is Joyce Randolph’s sunny Trixie.

There’s more channeling here than you can find between England and France –and every bit of it is superb and welcome. For this foursome will have you say “Oh, yeah! I’ve seen that expression on Ralph and Norton’s faces many times! Look at the absolutely precise ways that Alice and Trixie are standing! That’s their actual posture!”

This new stage show is, of course, THE HONEYMOONERS, that venerable entertainment that started off as a sketch on a 1951 variety show, blossomed into a 1955 sitcom and then returned to sketches that aired on and off through (believe it or not) 1985. Along the way, the black-and-white comedy morphed into an in-color musical.

The Kramdens and Nortons have now resumed singing and dancing in color – this time at the Paper Mill Playhouse, only 45 minutes from Broadway. The roads that get you there aren’t on bus driver Ralph’s regular route – and they may never be ones traveled by these Kramdens and Nortons, more’s the pity.

The problem is, for the umpteen-thousandth time in musical theater history, the book. Veteran TV writers Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss are for the most part satisfied to remind us of the show instead of surprising us as much as they could have. Oh, they do throw a few curve balls our way, one of which (at show’s end) is right over the plate. For the most part, though, a template is what the librettists are content to follow.

However, because Broadway is now so tourist-centric – and so many millions have seen THE HONEYMOONERS either during its early broadcasts or through its never-ending re-runs – there may well be a substantial audience that could keep the musical in Manhattan for many a moon.

“Moon,” of course, is a word long associated with the series, as part of the logo (which does show up over Beowulf Boritt’s impressive series of sets) or in Ralph’s famous directive to Alice. That, of course, brings up the thorniest problem that THE HONEYMOONERS faces: Ralph has always been a verbally abusive husband who did believe he was “King of the Castle,” as the show’s second song reiterates. In it, he even refers to Alice as his “just his servant, nothing more.”

His servant? His servant? Indeed, she’s not his servant – and if one knows THE HONEYMOONERS – and who doesn’t? – the show manages to get away with this overt sexism because the audience arrives already knowing that Alice always puts her paper-tiger husband in his place. She isn’t the least afraid that her future mail will require enough postage for a very out-of-town address.

Actually, more incisive bookwriters might have given Ralph at least cause for complaint. What does Alice DO all day? Can’t she make at least SOME improvement on that woebegone-looking apartment? Does Norton truly make substantially more money that allows his digs to look much more impressive? How does Alice feel when she visits the Nortons and sees what their apartment is like? These good questions go unanswered.

You’d think that considering all the issues the Kramdens have about money, Alice would volunteer to get at least a part-time job. Even in the ‘50s when husbands were the expected breadwinners, many a woman went to work. Why doesn’t Alice?

These are issues that might have been answered if the bookwriters had been more inspired. They seem content to remind us of what THE HONEYMOONERS were rather than revealing more of who they are.

At least Trixie has some ambition. She’s returning to the stage – a better one, in fact. Now she’s auditioning for El Morocco, which is a big step up from the House of Burlesque where she used to hang her G-string.

“Burlesque!?” you’re saying while scrunching up your face in confusion. If so, you either don’t remember or never knew that early on, the series actually established this as Trixie’s previous occupation.

As a matter of fact, two Broadway legends were involved: Elaine (COMPANY) Stritch in 1951 actually pre-dated Randolph as Trixie; Patricia (KISS ME, KATE) Morison was her ecdysiast colleague in a 1952 episode.

One might assume that one of the bookwriters – or perhaps composer Stephen Weiner or lyricist Peter Mills — said “Hey! If we make Trixie want to resume her career, we can get in one number when she auditions and another when she performs! Two down, 16 to go! And the jingle whets it down to 15!”

That observation may be cruel and unnecessary punishment, but the fact remains that this musical seems much too formulaic … unless the intended goal was always to create a musical that resembled the ones of yore (complete with overture) – meaning the ones that played Broadway while THE HONEYMOONERS aired on CBS. This one certainly adheres to the two-couple structure that was in vogue back then: Anna and the King, Lun Tha and Tuptim; Sid and Babe, Hinesey and Gladys. So Norton and Trixie get scenes (and troubles of their own) along with Ralph and Alice.

Ralph tells Alice as well as his co-workers that he expects to be promoted to “deputy second assistant dispatcher.” All the men celebrate him in song … but isn’t even one of them vying for the same position? Can’t we see a few be threatened, jealous, furious or just plain rankled because they don’t like Ralph?

Anyone who watched even a few episodes of the series can predict that Ralph won’t land the job. He doesn’t, but quite soon he learns that the jingle for which he provided lyrics to Norton’s music has been chosen as the winner of a contest.

The bus drivers predict doom for the seemingly-perpetually cursed Ralph. But everything comes up not just roses but bouquets of roses for both him and Norton through the entire first act. We’re asked to believe that Bryce Bennett, the ad agency exec, would suddenly offer the boys a weekly salary of $400 (nearly $4,000 in today’s money) to write more jingles.

Would Bryce really make such a strong commitment after liking their single effort? Later, Bryce suddenly decides he doesn’t like Ralph’s lyrics. This comes across more as an arbitrary device to find some conflict somewhere: Norton must now choose between loyalty and lucre.

Of course, it all winds up happily, but in most unconvincing fashion, as if the writers were exhausted after watching their own two-and-a-half-hour-plus musical comedy and grasped at anything that passed for happiness. Before it ends, though, Norton delivers a litany of Ralph’s many past failures. Fine, but Weiner and Mills would have done better to make this into a patter-song for Norton at the top of the show; audiences could be reminded of past episodes and savor their recollections of Ralph’s errors or runs of bad luck.

Joshua Bergasse’s choreography wisely inserts Gleason’s trademark “And awayyyyy we go” stance into the first production number – then pretty much repeats it in the second production number which is all too much like the first.

Weiner’s melodies have the right sound for the early ‘50s, which is an achievement in itself in these times when so many composers go anachronistic. (Soon to open is a rock musical about Robert Moses, who was born in 1888.) Many tunes have a June-Taylor-Dancers feel to them and indeed offer fine opportunities for dance.

Mills, a veteran of dozens of musicals, write lyrics that sparkle with craft and good ideas. His sharp eye is revealed when the other bus drivers praise Ralph by saying “They ought to put a statue of him in front of the Port Authority.” Those New Jersey commuters and a substantial number of New Yorkers will get the joke: Ralph Kramden has indeed been immortalized in bronze right in front of the terminal.

The song that opens Act Two gives Ralph a second spouse-abuse, sexist-rant. This one threatens to be more offensive because he sings it directly to Alice. The writers shrewdly avoid that problem by having Ralph stop the song and suddenly admit his failings to Alice. Although the series usually waited until the last minute for Ralph to implore his wife for understanding (if not mercy), doing it at this point helps to soothe the wound.

Alice gets a barnburner of her own via “A Woman’s Work” which Kritzer does magnificently, resulting in the deserved greatest ovation of the night. But fellas, if I may, there’s only one thing wrong: Alice doesn’t seem to be the type of person who’d let loose with a scat-infused song. Perhaps you felt you should reveal a side of her that we’d never seen before, which is a noble goal. Still, it comes across as an unbelievable “What got into her?” moment considering the world-weariness Alice almost always displays.

John Rando’s direction keeps everything flowing as fast as it can and yet, even with the fine pacing, he can’t conquer the overlong feeling. And while we never know who’s responsible for what idea, was it Rando’s exceptionally witty one to have Ralph and Norton carry workingman’s lunchboxes into the swank ad agency on their first day?

The musical that Paper Mill will do next – ANNIE – has never been out of sight for 40 years because it has heart and has always made us genuinely care what will happen to Annie and Daddy Warbucks. THE HONEYMOONERS goes for all the touchstones of previous episodes — The Raccoons, the song-writing contest, Norton’s incessant playing of the first bars of “Old Folks at Home” — all of which make us remember but don’t make us care.

One episode did. March 26, 1955 saw Ralph and Alice anxious to adopt a baby. The reason that they couldn’t have one of their own wasn’t the type of dialogue heard on mid-‘50s TV; today’s musical could have – or at least might have — explained.

Ralph desperately wanted a boy and was disappointed when a baby girl was their only option. Soon, though, Ralph was staring into the baby’s face and was falling in love with her.

All went sour, however, when the baby’s birth mother decided that she wanted the child after all. Ralph and Alice, though terribly reluctant give her up – and at this point under no legal obligation to do so — felt the girl legitimately belonged with her natural mother and returned her.

At this point on that March night 62 years ago, there may have been some dry eyes in the nations’ houses, but probably not many. If Kay, Nuss, Weiner and Mills had used this episode while also including the humorous touches of others, THE HONEYMOONERS might have been more successful. Right now, the honeymoon could be over on October 29th when the Paper Mill engagement ends. If so, that would be a terrible waste of four sensational performers.