Saturday, May 8, 2010

Review of "Promises, Promises"

Promises, Promises was the first musical to make an indelible impression upon me. I don’t really remember much from the 1971 national touring production I saw in Washington, D.C. except I thought the Burt Bacarach/Hal David score was captivating and the lead was a young Tony Roberts. That’s it. However, my memory of that evening has continued to be been strong over all these subsequent years. Interestingly, for a show that was a big Broadway hit, playing over 1,200 performances, the musical has been rarely mounted. A surprisingly lackluster 1993 Goodspeed Opera House production was the most recent. So, when a Broadway revival, featuring Sean Hayes and Kristen Chenowith, was announced for this season I was truly excited. Maybe this time my expectations and fond memories would be rewarded.

The plot, taken from the Billy Wilder movie, “The Apartment,” centers on the topsy turvy life of a lowly office clerk, Chuck Baxter, played by Sean Hayes, as he pines for co-worker Fran Kubleik, Kristen Chenowith, while dreaming of climbing the corporate ladder. One asset he has—a one bedroom apartment that all the office bigwigs covet in order to carry out their weekly affairs.

While this latest incarnation of Promises, Promises is not overly satisfying, the production does have much to offer. First, and foremost, is Kristen Chenowith, as the forthright, yet vulnerable waitress/hostess, Fran Kubelik. Chenowith is always a joy to behold in her too infrequent stage appearances. While not always coming across as the young, defenseless girl trying to find love in the big city, she does exude enough vulnerability to make you believe in her character. And what a voice!

Tony Goldwyn is sickly sweet as Personnel Director, J.D. Sheldrake who preys upon the young, innocent females of Consolidated Life Insurance. He’s a conniving charlatan that would make the men of television’s “Mad Men” proud.

The score, the only theatrical output by the team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, is bouncy and tuneful—just what you’d expect from the hit-making team. There are so many outstanding songs, which include the title track, “Our Little Secret,” “Where Can You Take a Girl?” “A Young Pretty Girl Like You,” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” The show’s producers, looking to enhance Chenowith’s role have added the Bacharach/David hit “I Say a Little Prayer” and “A House is Not a Home” to her repertoire. It’s a shame the two never wrote another show.

So, what about Sean Hayes? At first, I wasn’t too enamored with his performance as the slightly nebbish Chuck Baxter. I wanted more Tony Roberts or Jerry Orbach, who originated the role in the 1968 Broadway production. What we get on stage is a more heterosexual version of his Jack McFarland role on the television sitcom, “Will and Grace.” He’s a goofy sad sack of a character. It wasn’t until midway through Act I, when I admitted to myself that this is what the creative team wanted in the role, that I settled in to enjoy Haye’s antics on stage. Not a great singer, but someone with solid comic credentials.

My main problem with the show was, surprisingly, its lack of vitality. The liveliness was there during the overture as dancers slinked and shimmied to the music, but then all but disappeared until the rousing Act I ending, “Turkey Lurkey Time.” Sure, there flourishes here and there, but Choreographer Rob Ashford, as opposed to Director, Rob Ashford, could have done so much more. Likewise, I wasn’t impressed with Scenic Designer, Scott Pask’s more minimalist sets. Over the years I have been critical of sets that overpower a production, but here I thought more would have been better.

Director/Choreographer Ashford could have ratcheted up the tempo more in Act I, but does a much more admirable job in Act II, which is more melancholy in tone.

Promises, Promises, maybe more a period piece, but with some rousing performances and sparkling score, worth seeing.

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