Chicago’s Gary Griffin ‘Honeymoons’ on Broadway

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What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Except when it doesn’t. Take, for example, director Gary Griffin’s 2009 visit to Sin City.

“I was out for the ‘Jersey Boys’ opening,” the Rockford native, 54, recalls, “Decided to walk around a little, see the shops, had no intention — none — of buying anything. I just wanted to take it all in.” Flash forward an hour or so: Griffin is now in possession of a $600 pair of Dolce & Gabbana shoes. “Something about Vegas,” he adds, “gives you permission to do things you otherwise wouldn’t dream of.”

The psychology of Las Vegas – that ephemeral permissiveness hanging in the air as omnipresent as the whir and ding of one-armed bandits – is at the heart of the new musical “Honeymoon in Vegas,” Jason Robert Brown (score) and Andrew Bergman’s (book) swinging ode to a Vegas now in previews under Griffin’s direction.

‘Honeymoon in Vegas’ When: Open run. In previews; opens Jan. 15 Where: Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St., New York, New York Tickets: $69-$199 Info: Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission

“The central question of ‘What is Vegas?’ That’s really important to the show,” says Griffin from a skyscraper bar across the street from the Nederlander Theatre, where “Honeymoon” opens Jan. 4. “I wanted the show to convey that it’s a place you can indulge in your fantasies. Of course, some people’s fantasies are more dangerous than others.”

Based on the 1996 movie of the same name, “Honeymoon in Vegas” doesn’t traffic in the darker side of fantasy. Featuring a troupe of skydiving Elvises (Elvi?); a tap-dancing, ukulele-playing Tony Danza, and a swinging big band orchestra on stage, the show is more “Viva Las Vegas” than “Leaving Las Vegas.”

“This isn’t an attempt to do anything groundbreaking or to redefine the genre. It’s a celebration of what the musical theater does best: romance, comedy, tap dancing and music,” Griffin says.

The plot centers on nebbish New Yorker Jack Singer (Rob McClure) and his beloved Betsy Nolan (Brynn O’Malley). The two want to wed, but alas, every time Jack and Betsy attempt to tie the knot, the gorgonian ghost of Jack’s mother Bea (Nancy Opel) roars up in an ectoplasmic Freudian fury, threatening all manner of wrath should the pair marry.

To escape, Jack and Betsy light out for Vegas, visions of wedding chapels in their heads. Trouble ensues in the form of silk-on-butter-smooth swankster gangster Tommy Korman (Danza), a Frank Sinatra-suave high roller who wants Betsy for himself. Jack is soon on a quest to beat the odds and wed Betsy in defiance of rivals both otherworldly and worldly. A disastrous poker game, a wacky side-jaunt to Hawaii and a literally sky-high-stakes dive from a plane hurtling above the Strip all play into Jack’s hand.

It all may sound as serious as Silly Putty, but Griffin points out a startling, undeniable parallel. “It’s like a Shakespearean comedy,” he says. “New York is the court, where the lovers are prohibited from doing what they want. Vegas is the forest they flee to, the place where anything is possible.”

As in “As You Like It” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the neon woods of Vegas are filled with fantastically absurd, wisdom-imparting clowns – but rather than clowns as rustic shepherds or jovial servants, they’re vajazzled showgirls and hip-swiveling Elvi.

There is also that lavish roughly 20-piece band giving sizzling life to Brown’s lush, swooney, Sinatra- and Elvis-inspired score. “I wanted the true feel of a Vegas show,” Griffin says, “Growing up, I had this album, ‘Sinatra at the Sands.’ You close your eyes listening to it and you’re right in the middle of the Vegas strip.”

Brown and Bergman penned the show with Danza in mind. “He’s so charming,” says Griffin, “But he also has an edge. He piques people’s interest. When he told us he could tap dance and play ukulele, we were like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to use that.’ ”

Griffin first encountered Danza in 1996, when the singer performed at Oak Brook’s Drury Lane, where Griffin was artistic director. It’s been years since Griffin graduated from western suburbia to become a nationally recognized Sondheim interpreter and a Broadway vet (his earlier Broadway shows include “The Apple Tree” and the Tony-nominated “The Color Purple”).

New York and Chicago theater communities have distinctly different vibes, Griffin mused. “In Chicago, it’s like this big, extended repertory company. There’s a connectedness, a continuum to the theater community, this ever-present sense of history. In New York, it’s very much always about right now, this moment, this show. It’s not that one way is better than the other. The energies are just different.”

Audiences too have their own particular vibe, which Griffin has sussed out by disappearing into the audience during performances. “I really watch audiences,” he says, “I pay attention to their posture, if they’re riffling their programs, how and when they’re reacting. In Chicago, you can do a slow burn. People don’t rush to react, you can build up to things. In New York, they’re ready to go the second the lights go down. It’s like, ‘OK, we’re here. What’ve you got?’ Again, it’s not that one’s better than the other, it’s just a distinct difference.”

As far as home is concerned, however, Chicago will always be better for Griffin. He’s made the city his home since getting his first professional directing gig at the College of DuPage in 1988. For now, Griffin and his longtime partner, flautist/actor/dancer Richard Manera, and their two teenage cats Jack and Sabrina are ensconced in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.

“I never feel like I have to get out of Chicago. I am always happy to go back, no matter how great the experiences elsewhere are,” he says.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

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