The first act of “The Griswolds’ Broadway Vacation,” the world premiere Broadway-hopeful musical running at 5th Avenue Theatre through Oct. 2, is shot out of a cannon. The show starts huge, bold and in your face, and for five straight songs, energy pours off the stage. Donna Feore’s direction and choreography are crisp, the jokes are impeccably timed and the cast is hitting all the right notes. And then things start to shift, like the Griswold family station wagon all of a sudden buckled, weighed down in the second act as it tries to regain its early-show magic.
At its heart, “Broadway Vacation,” with book, music and lyrics by David Rossmer and Steve Rosen, is a musical about a family trying to not lose each other. You don’t need to know the Griswold family, brought to fame through the Chevy Chase-led “Vacation” movie series, to understand the family dynamics at play. Clark, the family patriarch, has brought his wife Ellen, daughter Audrey and son Rusty to New York City for what may be their last family vacation. Ellen and Clark can feel their marriage teetering on the edge, the flame that was once between them waning and the prospect of Audrey leaving to go to college in New York, far away from their home in Illinois, could push things over the edge.
Thankfully, there’s hope in the form of a Broadway musical! Ellen yearns to see the Broadway hit “Wilson,” the musical adaptation of the Tom Hanks classic “Cast Away,” and Clark has secured tickets to the impossible-to-get-into show. (One person sing-brags early in the show that they have tickets in 17 years.) Except Clark, ever fumbling the tasks put before him, has bought fake tickets and must now find a way to not let his wife down.
Ellen (spectacularly played by Megan Reinking) is the heart of this show. You feel the hope she has that this vacation can turn things around for her family and her relationship, and you ache for her when, at every turn, she’s left alone in the most populous city in the country. The show does give her some company in the form of Todd, a former high school classmate still nursing a crush on Ellen all these years later. Todd (Alan H. Green), aka the Naked Commando (step aside Naked Cowboy), commands the stage in a Terry Crews-esque pec-bouncing number (“The Battle of Ellen Hill”) that rallies his army of Times Square costumed performers to help him win over Ellen before she leaves New York.
Ellen’s choice between hunky Todd and “doofus” husband Clark (played with perfect comedic timing by Hunter Foster) sits central for the majority of the first act. Every time she’s left alone as her husband runs off to sneakily try to buy “Wilson” tickets or her kids disappear on their own adventures, there he is. Her climactic second-act song “Doofus” explicitly has her wondering which of these men she will choose. But that’s what’s odd: Todd never truly feels like an option for her, a feeling that seems to stem from the second act of the show losing focus on what made the first act work so well.
By the second act, the show seems to shift its focus away from Ellen and more to Foster’s Clark. Now, I can’t argue against wanting to give Foster more stage time. His Clark is the ideal amount of oblivious and tunnel-visioned. One moment in the show’s opening number sees a thief steal a woman’s purse, bump into Clark and then drop the purse at Clark’s feet. Clark picks up the bag, hands it to the thief and then high-fives the woman as she raises her hands in utter confusion. And Clark’s determination not to let his family down manifests throughout the show in the line “we are the Griswolds,” which Rossmer and Rosen shift from a defiant declaration to a desperate plea as Clark keeps his eyes on the holy grail that is the “Wilson” tickets.
But even though that line refers to the family as a whole, his actions are all about Ellen. We watch as Clark makes the obvious mistake of repeatedly leaving his wife alone, thinking the only way to make her happy is to secure these tickets. In watching Clark trot about town, we lose track of Ellen’s feelings about Todd, making her seemingly dramatic choice between the two men — I mean, it earned a full song after all — fall flat.
Now, I haven’t mentioned Rusty or Audrey because, well, they feel pushed aside by the show most of the time. Rusty (Nathan Levy) is basically left to his own devices, written into offstage adventures with the Church of Studyology or a pair of escorts or a dance crew as the show takes jabs at the idea that some tourists think New York City is some terrifying place when in reality New Yorkers can be just as nice as anyone else. There’s a moment in the finale of act one, “Hopes and Dreams,” when the family is together at breakfast, tempers start to boil over and Ellen spits that Rusty has become “coldhearted” — to which I just have to shrug and assume that something happened offstage to justify that.
And then there’s Audrey, who spends much of the show avoiding Clark because she thinks she caught him doing something before the vacation that could destroy their family. Livvy Marcus, who plays Audrey, and Foster have a nice duet in the second act where they open up to each other, but mostly she’s also offstage on her own adventure with a potential future classmate at Philosophers University of New York (PUNY), where she hopes to go to college. But even her avoidance of her dad brings us back to the impact his actions would have on Ellen.
Part of me wonders how this show would play as a one-act, preserving its first-act momentum. It’s a two-hour show with a 15-minute intermission, and an hour-and-45-minute show with no intermission isn’t unreasonable. But that break, added on top of a slow start to Act 2 that allows Ellen, the emotional core of the show, to be put on the back burner, feels like it costs “Broadway Vacation” its cathartic climax. The music is there, with multiple songs still running through my head. The direction and choreography are there. Honestly, I’ve never laughed this much at any of the previous “Vacation” series properties. And surprisingly, the end of the show threatened to make me cry as well. I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if it had succeeded.