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A Flying Elvis to the Rescue

Back in 1992 Andrew Bergman wrote the screenplay for a quirky little love story that, while it never won any awards, proved to be pretty popular at the box office. It starred Nicolas Cage, Sarah Jessica Parker and James Caan and is primarily remembered for its bizarrely funny romantic rescue by a group skydiving Elvis impersonators. When the film was completed, Bergman announced that he thought it might make a good musical comedy for the stage.

Flash forward a few years and, upon collaboration with famed Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown (“Bridges of Madison County,” “Parade”), the musical eventually found life on Broadway in 2015. Television personality Tony Danza was headlined as the star of the show. While the film featured a musical soundtrack borrowed from the Elvis Presley songbook, Brown instead composed an original score that simply recalled the sound of the 1960’s and 70’s. He was aiming for an appealing, big, brassy musical that would remind theatergoers of those old-fashioned book musicals of the Golden Age.

Now making its regional premier in Lincolnshire, this production is led by most of the same creative team that brought the original musical to Broadway. Director Gary Griffin, a ten-time Jeff Award-winner, known for his past work at the Marriott, Chicago Shakespeare, Writers Theatre and many other area venues, guided the original Broadway production. He’s joined by his Tony-nominated choreographer, Denis Jones, along with his original Emmy Award-winning costumer, Brian Hemesath. In addition, Chicago’s Ryan T. Nelson musically directs this production, with Patti Garwood conducting her talented ten-member pit orchestra.

The story begins on a rainy evening in Brooklyn. Jack Singer, an affable young man who’s in love with Betsy Nolan, an elementary school teacher, has been engaged to her for five years. He would’ve married her several times before this night, but he’s been laboring under the warning given by his dying mother. Bea Singer, on her deathbed, made Jack promise to never marry anyone under threat of her curse, delivered from beyond the grave. When Jack realizes that Betsy is about to leave him, he decides to bite the bullet, fly them both to Las Vegas that very night and marry Betsy, at last.

Complications arise when a multimillionaire named Tommy Korman spots Betsy in the Vegas hotel lobby. He lures Jack, an amateur poker player, into a high stakes game where he loses his beloved Betsy in a wager. Naturally, Betsy reluctantly honors Jack’s bet and heads off to Hawaii for the weekend with Tommy, staying at his luxury island mansion. Jack soon realizes what an idiot he’s been and sets off to reclaim his bride-to-be and finally tie the knot. Complications surround his rescue, including interference from Tommy’s network of crooks and goons who are determined to prevent Jack from reuniting with Betsy.

Anyone familiar with the film, however, anxiously awaits the exciting climax during which Jack skydives into Vegas amid a flock of flying Elvis impersonators. This special effect is made even more special through a combination of Denis Jones’ athletic choreography, Kevin Depinet’s superb scenic design and the colorful, artistic projection work designed by Anthony Churchill.

The cast is particularly charismatic and well-chosen. Michael Mahler, a favorite Chicago actor/singer, plays Jack Singer with just the right balance of romantic determination and superstitious fear from his mother’s curse. Mr. Mahler, who’s played similar roles in shows like “Little Shop of Horrors” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” is very good creating such likably nebbish characters. Jack Singer soon discovers that he’s his own worst enemy when it comes to winning over his lady love (“I Love Betsy”). Mahler, who’s also a talented composer, arranger and musician, makes every one of his many musical numbers feel conversational and easy on the ear.

As Betsy Nolan, Jack’s perky, beautiful love interest, outstanding Chicago musical theatre actress Samantha Pauly is simply a knockout. She may be remembered from playing the title role in the Marriott’s recent production of “Evita.” Ms. Pauly also charmed Lincolnshire audiences in productions of “Cinderella After the Ball” and “Elf,” as well as the conniving Amber Von Tussle in Paramount Theatre’s “Hairspray.” Here, Samantha makes the role of Betsy special and all her own, particularly with songs like “Anywhere But Here,” “Betsy’s Getting Married” and her eleventh hour, “I’ve Been Thinking.”

Sean Allan Krill, a Chicago actor who’s wowed audiences on almost every area stage, including several shows both on and off Broadway, creates the role of suave Tommy Korman. This actor, with the handsome good looks and charm of a young Kirk Douglas, seems at ease as this oily, conniving cad. Despite being the show’s antagonist, Krill delights audiences with his smooth vocals in such songs as “When You Say Vegas,” “Out of the Sun,” and, with Ms. Pauly, “You Made the Wait Worthwhile.”

Other standouts in this energetic cast of talented actor/singer/dancers include Cole Burden as both Vegas headliner, Buddy Rocky, and skydiving Elvis impersonator, Roy Bacon; Marya Grandy who creates Jack’s no-nonsense mama, Bea Singer, an hilarious Fruma Sarah-like ghost from beyond the grave; Steven Strafford, in top form, playing Johnny Sandwich, Tommy’s “Goodfellas” inspired second banana; Allison Sill and Kristina Larson as two bubble-headed, gum-chewing Vegas showgirls. The show-stopping ensemble consists of Alex Goodrich, Aaron Choi, Richard Manera, Christine Bunuan, Laura Savage, Devin DeSantis, DeShawn Bowens, Shana Dagny, Alejandro Fonseca, Tyler John Logan, Jessica Wolfrum Raun, Drew Reddington and Ambria Sylvain, all playing a variety of comic roles.

This easygoing book musical is a nice throwback to the tune-filled shows of yesteryear. Andrew Bergman’s script, along with a catchy score and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, isn’t earthshaking. It’s simply a pleasant, entertaining summer diversion, somewhat like the theatre version of a good beach read. The show is fun and frivolous, a faithful blast from the past for those who remember the film, and a nicely-produced escapist amusement. It’s well-directed, features some especially talented area triple-threats and fulfills a promise to give the audience a good time. What more can anyone want from their Honeymoon in Vegas?