A new musical comedy, inspired by the family of decades-old National Lampoon films, premiered this month at The 5th Avenue Theatre. It runs through 10/2.
The Griswolds‘ Broadway Vacation, the National Lampoon-inspired new musical comedy that opened just a week ago after a long run of previews, is closing on Sunday.
The world-premiere show seems to have its hopes set on Broadway, despite having an intermediate stop cancelled (as reported in Playbill and elsewhere), and it’s brought along the visual and on-stage talent to match.
The content and musical numbers, however, are another matter. With few exceptions, the musical’s jokes are tired rather than clever. The ending is somehow both predictable and a let-down. And while the family is somewhat endearing, the writers seem desperate to strip away any depth, while making them more pointlessly annoying than comical. Despite the production itself having several strong elements, it’s tough to identify why this show exists at all.
Let’s start with the positives. The stage, with set designed by Jason Sherwood and lit up by Jeff Croiter, is a ton of fun to look at. If anything moves this narrative forward, it’s that scenic design. A big, bright, cartoonish backdrop welcomes viewers before the show begins, and subsequent changes take us effortlessly around New York. Paying careful attention to a montage of Times Square signs is worth the effort, as some of the show’s few clever punchlines hide in their made-up business names and unlikely scenarios.
It’d be hard to find a better cast for key roles. Hunter Foster as the doofy dad Clark Griswold and Megan Reinking as mom Ellen Griswold combine for an endearing, if frustrated, couple; and the absurdly well-chiseled Alan H. Green, pecs dancing at attention, is a committed “Naked Commando,” a spin on Times Square’s famous “Naked Cowboy.” Tina McCartney’s costume designs help define the characters. The ensemble comes together well, particularly in wide-ranging characters performed by Jen Cody, and director/choreographer Donna Feore gives them some fun dance sequences.
But the content — book, lyrics, and music by David Rossmer and Steve Rosen — isn’t doing the on-stage talent many favors. Even great singers can’t save largely throw-away music (with the exception of an energetic ensemble number, “The Battle of Ellen Hill,” and the decent-enough Act II ballad, “Doofus,” which Reinking gives her all).
The plot is minimal to begin with, and its development over the sprawling show feels aimless. The Griswolds arrive in Times Square. The husband thinks taking the family to see the hot new Broadway show — called Wilson, a musical remake of Cast Away, of all things — will reignite his wife’s flame for him. But the tickets he bought on some scam website are fake, and there are no more to be found for a zillion years, but he can’t tell his wife about that failure or his recent job loss, so their family time is replaced by him running all over the city, burning money they don’t have, with increasingly unlikely excuses to cover up his various blunders. Meanwhile, the kids are doing just fine making new friends around the city, and an old flame is following the wife around with some borderline-stalkerish fervor.
The family is mostly endearing, and it’s easy to want the best for them. The problem with trying to rest an entire story on that is there’s never really any sense that their happy ending might be in danger. And that’s all fine — we need some low-stakes lightness these days — but there’s also nothing much to invest in. I had hoped there’d be a Grinch-like softening-of-heart transformation that might at least be cute while tying up some decades-past loose ends, but no such luck. The ending doesn’t even make much sense, much less have any compelling emotional payoff.
Purely as a comedy, there’s not much payoff there, either. Griswolds is largely a farce that tries hard, mostly unsuccessfully, to be clever. The theatre-slash-sex jokes — one pervy character was disappointed with The Iceman Cometh, but has big hopes for Come From Away — are worth a giggle. But most of the so-called humor consists of snoozy stereotypes about Millennials and long-overcooked jokes about New York crooks.
The best comedic bit, in my view, was a laughably improbable-yet-imaginable dance sequence showing off fashion for a hip new line called Hick Chic. But it’s mostly brought to life not by the writers, but by Feore’s choreography, the cast’s commitment and energy, and McCartney’s spot-on designs for the fictitious brand.
When the show is already riffing on National Lampoon characters from ‘80s movies and then recycles tired jokes and tropes on top of it … just how long has this thing been simmering? Was there a Rip Van Winkle-style nap involved? Or are writers just this hard-up for creative material?
Which brings us to the question … Why does this musical exist?
As the top of the show proclaims, we need a vacation. That makes this adventure sound like an inviting one where we can hope, at least, to find a fun escape. You’ll find some fun in this show, for sure, but as an escape it’s not a very satisfying one.
The Griswolds’ Broadway Vacation runs through 10/2 at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets are $69-$199, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are multi-stall and (newly) gender-neutral; theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible. Runtime: approximately 2.5 hours, with intermission. Pandemic era note: The 5th does not require proof of vaccination, and does not require masks.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.