On Broadway: Viva Las Vegas

December 31, 2014

Jerry Mitchell protégé Denis Jones makes his first Broadway moves.

Tony Danza (seated) and Rob McClure in Honeymoon in Vegas. Photo by Jerry Dalia, courtesy Paper Mill Playhouse.

In one of the deliciously surreal moments in Andrew Bergman’s loopy 1992 comedy Honeymoon in Vegas, a freaky Hawaiian chieftain with flowing locks performs Broadway show tunes. So perhaps it was inevitable that the movie’s marriage-averse New Yorker, his long-suffering girlfriend and a mobbed-up gambler who makes their trip to Las Vegas, er, memorable would all end up in a musical.

Rewriting his own film script for the stage, Bergman teamed up with composer Jason Robert Brown (The Bridges of Madison County), director Gary Griffin (The Color Purple) and choreographer Denis Jones. The resulting show was a hit in 2013 across the Hudson, at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, and their newly spiffed-up version opens on Broadway this month.

“It’s an exciting time,” says Jones, 46, in his low-key way. A former hoofer and a frequent associate choreographer for Jerry Mitchell, he’s making his Broadway debut as his own man after five years “basically choreographing anything that anyone would offer me anywhere.” He did benefits, regional theater, some TV and film work, and he found it all crucial. “You can only learn so much by watching and facilitating somebody else’s process. You really have to go out and do it on your own, and then you learn a whole new set of skills.”

As anyone who remembers the movie will attest, those skills will be challenged with Honeymoon, a show that one way or another must duplicate the film’s sensational comic climax, in which a cadre of Elvis Presley imitators in full jumpsuit regalia parachutes from a small plane over Bally’s casino. Jones confides that only one of his performers will actually be hoisted into the air—the others will create the illusion.

Jones, who grew up in San Francisco, says he was “one of those kids always wrangling the neighborhood kids to be in plays in the backyard.” There were puppet shows, magic shows and, eventually, a life-changing event: “When I was in third grade, my dad took me to see the rerelease of Singin’ in the Rain, which had been a favorite film of his from childhood. When I saw Gene Kelly’s performance in that, I wanted to be that guy.” He started studying tap, then expanded to classes in jazz, theater dance, ballet and acting. He became a young professional, working in San Francisco theater, doing commercials and ultimately majoring in acting at New York University.

“I couldn’t get away from dancing,” he recalls. “I left school a couple of times to do tours, of 42nd Street and Singin’ in the Rain. And the minute I graduated I threw myself into it headlong.” He got his Equity card touring in A Chorus Line—which he calls “an absolute road map for a choreographer.”

Another model is Mitchell, whom he met as a dancer when Mitchell associate-choreographed the 1994 revival of Grease. “I knew him very much in the dancer-choreographer relationship,” Jones says. “That became an associate choreographer-choreographer relationship for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Legally Blonde. I very much think of him as both friend and mentor—I learned so much from him artistically, because I was able to start to see things through his eyes, how he sees the stage picture and what’s important on that stage. But also I learned a great deal from him in terms of how to treat actors and dancers. He is absolutely a gentleman, a consummate professional who really gets the best work out of his dancers by making them feel the best about themselves. It’s a very positive room that he runs, and I try to emulate that.”

The Honeymoon in Vegas
cast makes it easy. Rob McClure, so brilliant with the physical comedy in Chaplin: The Musical, plays Jack, the role taken in the movie by Nicolas Cage. Tony Danza, who surprised everyone by revealing that he was an expert tapper, plays the James Caan role of the gangland boss. McClure, Jones says, “is not really a trained dancer, but he’s so physically expressive—and also fearless. The guy will do anything; ask him to jump off a building and he’d be, ‘Oh, sure, let me try it.’ I give him stuff, and then I’m delighted to see what it looks like on him.”

Some of that “stuff,” he says, has been influenced by the shows he’s been in and worked on. “You can’t help it,” he notes. “Hopefully they kind of combine and generate something unique.” Like non-flying flying Elvises.

From Backstage:

Dance captain: Barry Busby, who is also the assistant choreographer

Associate choreographer: Kim Craven, who has worked frequently with Twyla Tharp

Dance ensemble: 10 – “The vocal demands of this show are so intense that they are also equal part singers,” says Jones. “They really do it all.”

Specialties: “It was an interesting casting process because we needed such a mixed bag of physical types – character types, ethnic types. We wanted everyone to be very much an individual on the stage. There’s not one specific skill set that everybody required.”