Promises, Promises Revived...

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Promises, Promises Revived...

Post by nymusicalsguy »

With PROMISES, PROMISES facing the professional critics on Sunday evening, I feel it's now an appropriate time to share my own thoughts on the production. Hope this answers some of the questions folks here have had about the show, and changes to it...



The poster artwork suggests a sugary romantic comedy of the 1950s, with stars Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth standing in for Doris Day and Rock Hudson. The subdued, chrome-flecked physical production onstage at the Broadway Theatre lifts a page straight out of the 1962 of television’s Mad Men. Yet the show itself is pure 1968 New York, pulsating with the unquestionably unique energy of that particular place and time. Promises, Promises, that ultimate time capsule of the swinging sixties, is back on Broadway. And The Street is richer for it.

The musical arrived in the same season as the original production of Hair, which would signify a sea change not only on Broadway but culturally in general. But while kids were gearing up for the Summer of Love, many adults were coming to terms with changing mores and making their own attempts to “turn on.” Promises stands with Stephen Sondheim’s Company as a rare, adult look at those changing times, and shares a choreographer and orchestrator with that landmark musical. Promises was the work of Neil Simon, then arguably at the top of his game, and the red-hot songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who at that point had already been showered with recognition from the Grammys, the Oscars and of course, the Billboard charts. Legendary impresario David Merrick turned to the trio to adapt Billy Wilder’s seminal 1960 film The Apartment, and they succeeded in transplanting the early 1960s sensibility to the then-present day. Without losing Wilder’s melancholy tone, Simon was able to meld his own popular style to a story that is sometimes hard-hitting, and balances its darker moments with musical comedy levity and a fresh-sounding pop score of many colors. Clive Barnes emphasized this “slinky, fur-coated modernity” in his review for The New York Times: “The music excitingly reflects today rather than the day before yesterday…[the] costumes look so apt that they will probably need to be changed every three months to keep up.” Indeed, the original poster art featured a number of groovily-clad young women lounging lasciviously on a giant key, presumably the key to the apartment which our hero (?) lends out to executives in exchange for promotions up the corporate ladder.

That hero, of somewhat questionable morality, is the linchpin of the musical and frequently breaks the fourth wall to address the audience directly. He must be able to believably win the audience’s support and affection despite making a number of bad decisions throughout. Simon hasn’t been given enough recognition for writing one of the most believably real, flawed characters to grace a musical libretto, but perhaps he will receive those overdue-plaudits here. (Unlike today’s critics who perpetually re-evaluate Simon’s oeuvre in a negative light, Barnes was on the nose in 1968, singling out the “sad and wry humanity” in his book which “crackles with wit.”) His character of Chuck “C.C.” Baxter is embodied with empathy, humor and warmth by Sean Hayes, in a warmly winning performance that anchors this Promises, Promises. Hayes’ altogether wonderful turn is that of a self-deprecating boy next door who lets himself sink deeper and deeper into a moral black hole until he falls in love with a girl who is more familiar with “The Apartment” than with Chuck. Hayes doesn’t shy away from the more unpleasant aspects of the character all the while endearing himself to the audience. He’s a 180-degree turn from the role’s originator, Jerry Orbach, and channels Jack Lemmon in the original film more than Orbach. But the characterization works, and how.

The girl in question is played here by Kristin Chenoweth, the subject of much internet chat room squabbling for everything from her age (too old) to her vocal quality (a soprano?!?). Chenoweth may indeed be innately miscast here, an actress of supreme confidence playing the vulnerable role of wounded Fran Kubelik, in love with married executive J.D. Sheldrake (Tony Goldwyn). But after a somewhat shaky start, Chenoweth comes into her own with a powerhouse rendition of “Knowing When To Leave,” an inner monologue-meets-pop symphony where Fran crystallizes her central dilemma in song…and then completely ignores the advice she’s given herself. She’s even better in Act Two’s “Whoever You Are, I Love You,” one of the most wrenching songs ever penned by Bacharach and David, and an emotional high point of the musical as Fran makes a desperate decision to decide her fate once and for all. All of Fran’s emotions are rendered believably and intelligently by Chenoweth. But with her star presence has come a desire by the creative team to retool the show to make Fran an equal in the story to Chuck. Director/choreographer Rob Ashford has made the regrettable decision to expand her role with the addition of two Bacharach and David standards: “I Say A Little Prayer” and “A House Is Not A Home.” The former almost works, when Fran imagines what life could be like with her then-mystery lover, and a tinge of ironic regret seeps into the almost blithely-sunny song. But “A House Is Not A Home” simply cannot work here, as David’s lyrics have no relation to the character of Fran Kubelik. The lyric “I’m not meant to live alone/Turn this house into a home/When I climb the stair and turn the key/Oh, please be there/Still in love with me” begs the question, “What house? What home?” She’s never had either, as established in the text. Chenoweth sings the hell out of the song, a feat she will repeat on a future episode of Fox’s Glee. But in Promises, Promises, the show momentarily stops and becomes Kristin-Sings-The-Hits-of-Burt-Bacharach. Most puzzlingly, a powerful new song penned for the 1997 New York concert presentation, “You’ve Got It All Wrong,” and written as a spotlight for Fran and secretary Peggy Olson (here portrayed by Helen Anker), has been cut from this revival.

Ashford makes some other questionable choices. He has reset the show to Mad Men’s year of 1962, despite the fact that such a setting renders the cutting-edge-for-1968 score anachronistic. He has allowed for substantial changes in the Overture (for my money, second only to Gypsy and perhaps Funny Girl for musical power) and staged it completely, never allowing for the audience to concentrate simply on the music which would instantly transport us to the time period. He also has replaced Harold Wheeler’s spot-on period dance arrangements with inferior ones by David Chase. Ashford’s choreography is hit-or-miss; his sure instincts keep the show moving with kinetic energy and cinematic style, but individual numbers don’t pack the punch they did with Michael Bennett’s original. “Turkey Lurkey Time” has been pruned since early in previews, and is oddly staged on a nearly-bare stage, losing the sense of the fantastic-meets-the-mundane when Bennett’s giddy dancers ascended desks for their frenzied holiday office party pageantry. “She Likes Basketball” is terrifically clever, but Ashford adds an ensemble to power up a song which Jerry Orbach, the original Chuck, was able to turn into a showstopper all by himself. He does the same thing for “Wanting Things,” a song intended to humanize Sheldrake’s conflicting desire for both his wife and Fran. But adding a chorus of red-clad sirens bathed in a hellish light only serves to undermine Goldwyn’s sensitive portrayal, making Sheldrake a one-note villain. He has also all but eliminated “Christmas Day,” the wistful second-act ballad sung by offstage singers that provided a welcome relief to the drama onstage and is here played at a frenetic clip, shortened and all but obscured by dialogue. Such decisions left me scratching my head.

Ashford fares better coaxing wonderful performances out of his cast, which also includes the scene-stealing Brooks Ashmanskas as Mr. Dobitch and old pro Dick Latessa as Dr. Dreyfuss, the exasperated general practitioner from the next apartment. Latessa has only grown more befuddled and more humorous since his 1997 performance in the role at Encores! Goldwyn does as much as possible to bring honesty and uncertainty to his Sheldrake. Best of all is Katie Finneran as the boozy Marge MacDougall, who appears at the top of Act Two and threatens to walk away with the show. The scene between Hayes and Finneran is textbook comedy, and maybe the single funniest ever written by Neil Simon, and both actors live up to it. Finneran is delicious as man-hungry Marge, dry as a martini and decked out in an owl coat. Her duet with Hayes on “A Fact Can Be A Beautiful Thing” is literally intoxicating. But most importantly, Ashford displays sensitivity in establishing a sure tone for the musical which veers from the patented Simon zingers to dead seriousness, sometimes in the same scene, especially as the stakes are raised in Act Two. There are at least two times in the show when the audience audibly gasps, and Ashford’s production makes the most of these moments. He has resisted any urge to play the show for kitsch, and this registers mightily.

But the real star of Promises, Promises is still the score. Despite an orchestra reduced almost in half to eighteen players under the baton of Phil Reno, Burt Bacharach’s music still sounds like no other. Jonathan Tunick has reduced his own orchestrations, insuring that their integrity has been kept intact even if the strings are much-missed. Promises was the first musical on Broadway to implement a sound design much like that of a recording studio, and its singular sound is still vibrant and wholly its own, with “pit singers” backing up the vocalists from offstage, as on a pop record. Unlike the original, though, the pit singers also double in the ensemble. (Brian Ronan deserves credit for his sound design here.)

Promises, Promises still stands today as a mature musical comedy imbued with a sound like no other. A night at the Broadway Theatre will be one well-spent on a show that’s too little-known to the masses. For those reasons alone, I’d have to cheer it. With Hayes delivering a star-making performance and able support from the other pros onstage and off, I can loudly echo Bacharach’s admirer Austin Powers: “Yeah, baby, yeah!”

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Re: Promises, Promises Revived...

Post by Rio »

Excellent review, if I may say so -- especially without having attended the show.
I have the feeling that I could agree with everything.

But I wonder if I like the added emphasis on the sad aspects of the play. I think people would be better off watching a thouroughly entertaining show and leaving the theater in an upbeat mood. Whoever You Are, especially, and Knowing When To Leave and Wanting Things seem sufficient to produce a more somber, if powerul effect, without infusing the show with fearful suspense or angst.

Let me see if I understood this correctly. The opening is tonight, but the professional crtics attend tomorrow's show, and the reviews come out on Monday?

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Re: Promises, Promises Revived...

Post by mark »

Great review! Thanks, nymusicalsguy!

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