Ralph Kramden Is Back! (This Time as a Play.)

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, The Honeymooners

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Somehow, some way, every adult American has seen Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners television series. If you have not seen The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy and M.A.S.H. you have not lived in the U.S. The Honeymooners ran on television in the mid-1950s, was a longtime part of Jackie Gleason’s variety show afterwards and has been running on cable channels forever. The show is the story of two blue collar buddies and neighbors from Brooklyn, New York. Ed Norton works in the sewer and Ralph Kramden is a bus driver (“no accidents n fifteen years”). They each make about $62 a week ($25,000 annually in today’s market). They are married to two lovely women, Alice and Trixie, who complain bitterly about their husbands’ antics but love them dearly. Ralph is an oversized (no pun intended) loudmouth who yells and screams, waves his arms and stomps about his miserable two room apartment as he searches for harebrained schemes to get rich and continually makes a fist and threatens to send Alice “to the moon.” Norton is the daffy friend in a goofy hat who, in the sewer, as he says “floats” through life.

The show was a huge hit and has been honored repeatedly (in 1999, TV Guide named it one of the ten greatest shows in television history). Now it has been turned into a musical. Could it work as a stage play? It was turned into a movie in 2005 but did not do well. The stage show opened at the Paper Mill Playhouse, in Millburn, N.J last night.

The play is so good that the Loyal Order of the Raccoons, Ralph and Ed’s fraternal lodge in Brooklyn, would stand up and wave their raccoon pelt hats for it. Mrs. Manicotti upstairs would open her window and scream down its praises. Mr. Marshall at the Gotham Bus Company would adjust his tie and hail it. The waiters at the Hong Kong Gardens, the Kramden’s favorite restaurant, would applaud wildly. It is a super show and a nice nostalgic look back at the 1950s.

And away we go ….

The play is not a tribute, as its producers have been telling reporters. Oh, the characters are the same and the script takes scenes from a number of fabled series episodes (the hilarious golf lesson story, as an example). Yes, the big moon rises over Brooklyn, the men in the sewer sing and dance, the Gotham buses roll and the old apartment looks the same. The Honeymooners story moves on, though, in the musical. The storyline is simple, as it always was. Ralph and Ed enter a jingle writing contest and win. Will their new-found fame, and big money, change their lives? Will they leave their beloved beat up Chauncey Street? Will Ed turn in his sewer boots for music sheets? Will Alice become a singer? The writers of the play, Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss, have done a fine job of making the story flexible and very fresh and contemporary.

The beauty of the show, like episodes of Seinfeld, is that you know what the characters are going to do and they do it. There is a point in the musical when Ralph turns to the audience, spreads his arms wide and yells that he has a “big mouth.” The audience roars. They wanted him to do that, as he did on TV for fifty years, and he does it. Norton shakes his hands before he plays the piano to the delight of the crowd. Alice stares down Ralph.

At the same time, they have kept the elements of the original 1950s story, a charming lesson in urban history, intact. The story is a good look back at the 1950s (the show first aired in ‘55). Ralph and Ed live in an old, crowded apartment building in Brooklyn. The beloved Dodgers still play at Ebbetts Field. The new take out Chinese restaurant nearby is the anchor of fine dining in the neighborhood. The men in the area belong to fraternal lodges and wear silly hats and go to conventions. Workers bring their lunches to work in lunchboxes. Many people do not yet have television sets. Those that do watch Milton Berle each week. Show about space travel are brand new and they have viewer fan clubs. Newspapers and magazines are full of ads for get-rich-quick schemes. All of this is captured with sheer brilliance in the show.

The Honeymooners debuted as a sketch on Jackie Gleason’s variety show, Cavalcade of the Stars, in 1951 (on the Dumont network, the fourth largest network of the era). It was turned into a regular series in 1955 and became the second most popular show on television. It ran into stiff competition from the Perry Como Show, though, and fell in the ratings. CBS – and Gleason – abandoned the show after just 39 episodes. The episodes became the “classic 39,” a piece of entertainment history. Gleason went on to star in a variety show and brought the Honeymooners back as a sketch once more. Over all the reincarnations, Art Carney won five Emmys as Ed Norton and Gleason and others earned several Emmy nominations.

There is political history in the start of the show, too. Pert Kelton played Alice, but it was soon discovered that she had been an actress blacklisted in the Communist scare of the early 1950s and she was fired. Joyce Meadows was slated to play Alice but Gleason thought she was too good-looking Meadows had a photographer take pictures of her at her home early in the morning casually dressed and without make up. Gleason loved it and hired her. Carney was in the show from the beginning and it was the chemistry between him and Gleason that made the show so successful.

In the musical at the Paper Mill, director John Rando does a wonderful job of re-creating the Honeymooners ensemble and working with composers Stephen Weiner and Peter Mills to turn the old sit com into a musical. The music by Weiner and Mills is quite good and the lyrics help tell the story of the Kramdens and Nortons, sometimes in a loving way. The cast is superb. You shudder at first when you wonder if anybody cud play Ralph, or play Jackie Gleason playing Ralph, but actor Michael McGrath plays them both well. He looks a little like Gleason but has his physical moves down cold, especially in the goofy golf lesson scene. He evens sounds like Gleason in parts of the play. Michael Mastro is a dead ringer for Norton. Alice is played by Leslie Kritzer and she steals the show numerous times with her comic rejoinders to Ralph and in her solo number, A Woman’s Work. Laura Bell Bundy is fine as Trixie. They are surrounded by a talented ensemble cast.

The show has some spectacular musical numbers, brilliantly choreographed by Joshua Bergasse. In one of the songs To the Moon, Ralph and Alice sing lovingly about their combative relationship (did anybody in the history of the wide world ever think that Ralph would strike Alice? Come on).

There is one BIG problem with the play. Apparently, in one of the “lost” episodes of the series, it was mentioned off handedly that Trixie was a burlesque dancer before she met Ed Norton. This risqué character is a large part of the musical. This does NOT, NOT, NOT work. Trixie no stripper; she is our beloved friend upstairs. Period

The final verdict on The Honeymooners? Baby, it’s the greatest ….

PRODUCTION: The show is produced by the Paper Mill Playhouse. Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt. Costumes: Jess Goldstein, Lighting: Jason Lyons, Sound: Kai Harada, Wig Design: Leah J. Loukas. Choreography: Joshua Bergasse. The play is directed by John Rando. It runs through October 29.

Oh, I forgot to say it – BAM! ZOOM!

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