Saturday, May 1, 2010

Definition of 'Dated'


Promises Promises

Music by Burt Bacharach

Lyrics by Hal David

Book by Neil Simon

Directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford

Starring Kristin Chenoweth, Sean Hayes, Brooks Ashmanskas, Katie Finneran, Tony Goldwyn, Dick Latessa

Performances began March 27, 2010

Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway

Chuck Baxter works at Consolidated Life in Manhattan, a fact we know right from the beginning of the revival of the 1968 Burt Bacharach-Hal David-Neil Simon musical, Promises Promises. As our hero sits at his desk, a large sign descends with the company’s name in huge letters, five of which jump out during the opening scene and pretty much sum up Rob Ashford’s tepid production: “Consoli-DATED.”

From the cornball Simon book to the lukewarm Bacharach-David songs to the functional plot cribbed from Billy Wilder’s hit 1960 movie The Apartment—about a low-level corporate functionary who allows his superiors the use of his West 67th Street pad for their extramarital trysts in return for a not entirely undeserved promotion—Promises Promises reeks of a bygone era, a simultaneously sleazy and innocent artifact that begs its audience’s indulgence for a belabored 2-½ hours.

Chuck, as it happens, is head over heels for pretty cafeteria worker Fran Kubelik, but his feelings go unrequited, at least until he discovers that it’s Fran who’s his boss J.D. Sheldrake’s girl, meeting him at Chuck’s apartment. In true Wilder-Simon fashion, the one-liners and the fur fly until the forced, and not entirely believable, happy ending.

Ashford choreographs Promises Promises more persuasively than he directs. Scenes predicated on movement work well and are given the opportunity to breathe—the opening number, the Christmas party, the barroom scene that opens Act II—but these have little to do with the story. Whenever Promises Promises concentrates on Chuck and Fran’s delayed but inevitable hooking-up, it lies there inertly, unable to overcome Simon’s proficient but scattershot joking and the mostly unmemorable Bacharach-David numbers which, finally, make it difficult to care about our couple’s plight since they keep getting in the way for three or four minutes at a time.

Indeed, the score, except for the insanely hooky “I’m Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” is one long mediocre pop tune. Even the hits shoehorned into the show so that Kristen Chenoweth can sing them—“I’ll Say a Little Prayer” and “A House Is Not a Home”—are interchangeable ballads, and Chenoweth sings them with a shrill, wavering voice, which doesn’t help.

Chenoweth, in fact, is ill-used as Fran. This boisterous, always vital singer-actress is one of our musical theater treasures, but she seems stumped at how to play this mouse. Unlike Shirley MacLaine in the movie, Chenoweth is never believable, and her tentative singing follows suit.

Sean Hayes was cast as Chuck because of his comedic chops honed on Will and Grace, while Encores’ Damn Yankees showed he could succeed in musical comedy. He brings a boyish charm to Chuck (Hayes looks like a younger, goofier John Edwards), although his excessive underlining of nearly every word is hardly needed. His serviceable singing is marred whenever he tries to hold a note; when he starts to waver, it’s as if like he’s gargling simultaneously as he sings.

Dick Latessa gets good laughs as Chuck’s next-door neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss, constantly amazed at the sexual goings-on in his apartment; you hear the rat-a-tat of prime Simon comedy in Latessa’s performance. Tony Goldwyn decently enacts boss J.D. Sheldrake, while Katie Finneran overdoes Marge, a tipsy bar pickup who goes home with Chuck. It’s already a showstopping part, but Finneran (egged on by Ashford, obviously) amps up the showboating to the point where it ceases being funny.

Scott Pask’s minimal sets and Bruce Pask’s spot-on costumes, lit flavorfully by Donald Holder, look puny on the Broadway Theater’s gargantuan stage; despite its modest pleasures, so does the entire show.

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