Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Say A Little Prayer For - Promises, Promises - Musical Review

Promises, Promises - Broadway Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music by Burt Bacharach, Lyrics by Hal David, Book by Neil Simon, based on the film
The Apartment written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, Directed and Choreographed by Rob Ashford
In Previews, Opens Apr. 25th 2010. NOTE: Review based on an early preview.

Promises, Promises is promising promising, but what doesn't work in this revival is actually cemented into the original book and music, and some of its main casting. Unless Neil Simon agrees to major rewrites and Burt Bacharach is willing to re-write songs, I'm not sure how they can fix what's wrong. On the plus side, Sean Hayes, Katie Finneran and Rob Ashford's choreography give the show the energy its needed to make it a pleasant evening, while the fame of Hayes and now-star Kristin Chenoweth will make it a big ol' hit on Broadway and make it a hot ticket, at least until they leave.

Promises, Promises may be a revival and considered somewhat a classic, but while the story of The Apartment (which the musical is based on) is quite interesting (it's the swinging 60's and naive Chuck Baxter is lending his apartment to the higher ups at work for to use for their affairs, in hope that he'll get promoted for his gesture so that he can fall in love with the lovely Fran), the book by Neil Simon feels dated with jokes that almost require a drum set accompaniment. It makes Sean Hayes performance an even bigger accomplishment since he manages to milk every laugh from every line with his wonderful comic timing and oodles of charm and likability.

Sean Hayes, most famous for his uber-gay comic portrayal of Jack MacFarlane on Will and Grace, makes his Broadway debut with an abundance of stage presence, without relying on hysterical caricature and wonderfully plays a more subdued (and straight acting) role of Chuck Baxter with a nice leading man charm that reminds me of another star-turned Broadway presence Matthew Broderick. What holds Hayes back is his singing voice, which remains decent and serviceable if not exactly strong enough to carry a leading role and its required songs.

To counteract (or make even more obvious) Hayes' meagre singing voice, Hayes plays against Kristin Chenoweth's Fran Kubelik, Chuck Baxter's love interest and Chenoweth belts out Bacharach's songs as she's famous for. Except, as much as I love Chenoweth and as excited as I was to finally see her live for the first time, her voice doesn't seem to match Bacharach's softer song style and it just doesn't seem to click perfectly. On top of that, Fran is quite the dour character, almost unlikable.

Fran is the object of Baxter's attraction, but meanwhile, she has been secretly having an affair with one of the big bosses J.D. Sheldrake (Tony Goldwyn, Ghost), and while we know she would be with Baxter, it takes the whole show for her to constantly make mistake after mistake, including a drug overdose, before she realized nice guy Baxter is the guy she should be with. Why is Baxter in love with this troubled woman anyways? The perky Chenoweth tries to throw some dark drama into the darker role, but what's the point in casting Chenoweth if we can't get her perky self?

Instead, Katie Finneran (above with Hayes), who plays a character named Marge MacDougall who shows up for all of 2 scenes, steals the show with her HILARIOUS performance as a drunk woman who flirts with a bummed Chuck Baxter at the opening of the 2nd act. Finneran's Marge essentially comes out of nowhere and is supposed to be a device to push Chuck back into Fran's arms, but Finneran's performance is so winning, you wonder why Chuck and Marge don't just run away to live happily ever after.

All this is happening while there is the air of Mad Men mixed with 9 to 5 happening in this office comedy, with the famous-to-theatre-people song "Turkey Lurkey Time" somehow being thrown in as filler to identify a Christmas office party. Business men get horny over their secretaries, led by Brooks Ashmanskas (above with Hayes, She Loves Me, lovable but not at all believable as a man trying to sleep with any woman), and demand use of the apartment.

The sets are sparse and minimalist (and seem ready made to be transported easily for a national tour) in the first act but are workable and have a certain 60's simplistic flair, so I can buy it. The look of the 2nd act does a complete switchover as full on sets create a more intimate feel and a more specific story. It gives the 2nd act the dramatic weight the story calls for, something missing from the first half of the show, but by then, the true heaviness of the show has sunken a show that seems to sell itself on a light and airiness.

Rob Ashford's choreography is fun and Fosse-esque and make all the ensemble songs fun, but alas, most of the songs by Burt Bacharach are forgettable. Yes, there's "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" which became a famous hit, outside of the musical itself, but there's a reason why the other songs didn't become famous. In fact, the songs are so forgettable that they've inserted two of Bacharach's most famous songs, "I Say A Little Prayer" and "A House Is Not a Home" into the show (and when I mean inserted, I mean inserted, with very little lead up to work them into the book).

Dick Latessa does what he can with his thankless role, while Tony Goldwyn (above) seems a bit stiff playing the stiff suit that Fran falls for, and his voice, like Hayes' is serviceable but not great.

Unfortunately, Rob Ashford (making his Broadway directing debut), who so brilliantly directed recent Donmar revivals of Parade and A Streetcar Named Desire, tries to keep the buoyancy of the show alive as much as possible, but doesn't quite seem to know how to fix it all. With a somewhat miscast Kristin Chenoweth, with Tony Goldwyn out of his musical element, and with an incongruous 1st and 2nd act, Ashford will need to smooth things over before opening night to bridge Neil Simon's lame book and Bacharach's tepid songs. Sean Hayes and Katie Finneran luckily bring a needed zest to the proceedings (and who collectively give at least 2 to 2.5 of the 3.5 stars I'm giving this show), and the ensemble cast dances up a storm with Ashford's choreography, that there's still hope for the show, as it still has some promise to it.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com


jeremy said...

We've got tickets for the 22nd and I'm looking forward to it. I was hoping for a more Hawks-ian take on it than a Broadway take, but I'll settle for whatever I get.

DuchessKitty said...

I'm supposed to be going to see it on May 12. Now I'm hesitant. I always thought it was an odd choice for a revival. Hard to make fresh.
Oh hell, I love me some La Cheno so I'll probably enjoy it no matter what.

Helen von Rensselaer said...

I believe that the reason for the augmented songs in the score is that the leading lady doesn't get nearly as many songs as the leading man. There are a great many Broadway fans who consider PROMISES PROMISES score to be a classic among broadway scores.

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