‘The Griswolds’ Broadway Vacation’ Review: New Musical Struggles to Strike Balance Between Slapstick and Sentiment

After a bunch of peppy up-tempo numbers, you just know there is going to be at least one ballad somewhere in “The Griswolds’ Broadway Vacation,” the new musical with Broadway aspirations premiering at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre. It arrives in the second act: “Doofus,” a tender ode from a much put-upon wife to her eternal screw-up of a husband.

The song encapsulates some of what is amiss with this oddly retro, very busy and fitfully amusing show, inspired by the National Lampoon film comedies of the 1980s and 1990s about a Chicago family’s holiday misadventures. Whether the cinematic Griswolds are traveling to a California amusement park, hitting Las Vegas or hosting relatives at home for Christmas, the occasions invariably turn into nightmarish disasters caused by a shlemiel dad’s dimwit decisions.

The five features in the franchise (that doesn’t count a made-for-tv sixth outing) took in more than $300 million at the box office. And the series was certainly the commercial high point of star Chevy Chase’s movie career.

But how does the slapstick, sometimes raunchy, gleefully dark humor of the films lend itself to today’s Broadway? Is there a winning storyline and more current gags to be wrenched from the movie’s formula of stock comic characters and catastrophe-laden skits?

Not so far, as treated in the book and score by David Rossmer and Steve Rosen that attempts to blend a more sentimental approach with broad clowning. On the plus side, there’s a lot of talent involved, especially in the strong cast of performers who give even the weakest material their all.

That fond love song to father-knows-worst Clark Griswold (played with flustered sincerity by Hunter Foster) is sung by wife Ellen (the appealing, sure-voiced Megan Reinking). It celebrates a shlemiel spouse who has: 1) spent a fortune on tickets to a hit show via a Russian website, only to discover they’re fakes; 2) coughed up more dough for replacements from another dubious source; and 3) not told his wife that, by the way, he lost his job a while ago.

Clark’s often clueless attempt to straighten things out is meant to be kind of sweet — even selfless, unlike the hellbent obliviousness and misanthropic aspects of Chase’s film persona.

Foster’s Clark is a foursquare family man. That’s in contrast to the early “Vacation” movies, which took sly swipes at the Reagan era by dismantling the myth of the perfect, harmonious, WASP family. And like the Griswolds’ signature 1979 Ford LTD Country Squire station wagon (which makes an onstage appearance), the musical’s view of family dynamics, New York City and Broadway seems stuck in retro gear, even though it unfolds in the near-present.

Jason Sherwood’s eye-catching set, which frames Manhattan through a series of telescopic views, initially sports a Times Square skyline that includes billboards for Video World (“now with DVDs”), a massage parlor, a production of “Pippin” starring Trump presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway, and an ad for the smash hit musical “Wilson,” which figures large in the storyline here. It’s the show Ellen yearns to see, and Clark’s desperate attempt to solve the ticket snafu is a test of whether the troubled Griswold marriage can survive.

But no, the blockbuster “Wilson” is not an unlikely rap-influenced jam in a “Hamilton” mode about the 28th U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson. (Now that might have been funny.) It’s a briefly glimpsed song-and-dance treatment of “Cast Away,” the 2000 Tom Hanks film about a fellow stranded on a desert island with only a volleyball to relate to — an equally absurd concept for a tuner, but one “The Griswolds’ Broadway Vacation” gets too little comic mileage from.

The chorus, snappily choreographed by Donna Feore (who is also the show’s director) is a tad more current. It’s made up of costumed Times Square comic book and movie characters (and a gloomy Statue of Liberty gal) who cadge tips from tourists in exchange for selfies with them. The crew includes “Naked Commando” (a more sensitive, clean-cut version of Times Square celeb Naked Cowboy), played with gusto by Alan H. Green. His gig is ditching his military costume and prancing, Magic Mike-style, in tighty-tight briefs. Coincidentally, he runs into Ellen, whom he carried a torch for when they were classmates in high school, and now he tries to win her love in the pec-flexing number “The Battle of Ellen Hill.”

The Griswold kids, Rusty (Nathan Levy) and Audrey (Livvy Marcus) at least have cellphones and the worldly snark of today’s sitcom offspring. But two squawking, sashaying hookers who pick up Rusty just to hang out with him are jokey Times Square cliches circa the 1980s.

Meanwhile, teenage Audrey is glum over a suspected betrayal by her dad — until she meets up with Raphael (Rohit B. Gopal), a cool kid who is also checking out PUNY (Philosophers University of New York, get it?). 

There are some spot-on laughs in their fleeting interactions, like when the pair visit “the real Harlem” only to be offered a gluten-free scone by a vendor. It’s one of the few jests that nod to the rampant and obvious turbo-gentrification of the city. In this version of the Big Apple, there’s still enough affordable real estate in the Village for a flamboyantly fake psychic, Madame Sherie (Jen Cody), to practice her mumbo-jumbo on the guileless Ellen.

In a long slapstick set piece in the Griswolds’ hotel room, Clark tries to close a deal with a ticket hawker while appeasing his love-starved wife. The farcical bit stretches on and eventually falls flat. But the show recaptures some of the wicked movie humor when Clark swallows his pride to seek help from his nemesis, the John Belushi-esque, outrageously obnoxious Cousin Eddie (a shamelessly over-the-top Jay Klaitz). Eddie has hit paydirt as the inventor of Hick Chic, an upscale “hillbilly” clothing line (endorsed, no less, by Lady Gaga). But he’s still the same slimy operator, and his solution to Clark’s dilemma is to poach the tickets of some stereotyped Scandinavian tourists. (Yes, the ABBA and meatball jokes are stupid, but laughable.)

Of course, the well-meaning Clark sets things to right. After all, he was just trying to make this family trip “magical.” And, of course, Ellen and the kids forgive him and hug it out.

But with the cancellation of a planned run of the show at Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars this autumn, the creators of “The Griswolds’ Broadway Vacation” and veteran Broadway producers Ken Davenport (“Once on This Island”) and Sandi Moran (“Moulin Rouge”) could use some time to reconsider the balance of schmaltz and spice, contemporary and retro in this show. And to refine who it is aimed at. Sophisticated New York theatergoers? Big fans of the Griswold movies? Families who don’t mind a little raunch? Finding something to please any or all of these potential ticket buyers may not be so easy.

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