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Bacharach-David score elevates 'Promises, Promises'

NEW YORK

Broadway is awash in "jukebox musicals'' — American Idiot, Fela!, Million Dollar Quartet, Mamma Mia! — that are basically glorified concerts of pre-existing pop songs, so I found myself strangely affected by the new revival of Promises, Promises. It's not a very good show, with an air of swinging '60s sexism that is badly dated, but as a book musical (and the book is by Neil Simon, no less), it's an interesting specimen of the dialogue-song-dialogue-song format that used to rule Broadway. Plus, the Burt Bacharach-Hal David score is a constant delight. • If you still have a weakness for that oldest of musical theater conventions in which a guy can stroll down the street and break into song to a full orchestra and have the cop on the beat, the newspaper vendor on the corner and a waitress at the coffee shop join in on the choruses, then Promises, Promises is right up your alley.

The 1968 musical was based on the Billy Wilder film The Apartment, with Jack Lemmon as Chuck Baxter, the insurance accountant who loans out his bachelor pad to philandering executives to aid his climb up the ladder at Consolidated Life. Romantic complications ensue when the young woman he fancies, Fran Kubelik, played by Shirley MacLaine in the movie, is having a fling with Baxter's married boss.

In the revival, Sean Hayes plays Baxter, and Kristin Chenoweth is the object of his affection. Hayes, famous from TV's Will & Grace, is making his Broadway debut in the stage role originated by Jerry Orbach, providing a neat commentary on changes in the show business pecking order. Orbach was a Broadway trouper — his original-cast credits also included The Fantasticks, Carnival, Chicago and 42nd Street — who parlayed theater work into success on the small screen, notably Law & Order. Hayes and other TV and movie stars are going the reverse route these days, and keeping a lot of Broadway shows commercially, if not artistically, viable.

Hayes has gotten flak for his performance, most egregiously in a column for Newsweek.com by Ramin Setoodeh that took him to task for being a gay actor playing a straight character. Setoodeh, who is also gay, wrote that Hayes ("best known as the queeny Jack on Will & Grace'') was unconvincing as a man in love with a woman because "he comes across as wooden and insincere, like he's trying to hide something, which of course he is.''

Hayes' sexual orientation never crossed my mind until I read this really dumb column. I thought the actor did a decent job in the role, though he is not always up to the challenges of Bacharach's tricky music. But then neither was Orbach, whose singing on the original cast album is persistently flat.

Chenoweth rose to her co-star's defense in a spirited online response to what she called a "horrendously homophobic'' piece. Unfortunately, from the standpoint of appearance at least, she has been poorly cast in Promises, Promises, seeming too old and hard-edged for the part of Fran Kubelik. With a blond bouffant hairstyle, she looks like a leathery little cowgirl (the 4-foot-11 Chenoweth is from Oklahoma) dressed up for a night on the town.

Still, she is a terrific singer, and it is a pleasure to hear her in the wonderful Bacharach-David songs, and not just familiar ones like I'll Never Fall in Love Again. Her renditions of the torch songs Knowing When to Leave and Whoever You Are are riveting. In a dubious move, the revival has added a pair of extra songs from the Bacharach-David catalog for Chenoweth, I Say a Little Prayer and A House Is Not a Home. They're nice to hear but don't fit the character.

Directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford, Promises, Promises is intended to exploit the craze for Mad Men, the TV series about Madison Avenue in the '60s. The men wear suits and skinny ties. Scott Pask's scenic design is a candy-colored pastiche on the era, with Henry Moore-style sculpture and luxe furniture, such as a slippery Eames chaise that Hayes struggles to sit in.

Promises, Promises got off to a rocky start when it opened in April, receiving mixed reviews and just four Tony Award nominations. Somewhat surprisingly, Chenoweth was snubbed, and the show wasn't among nominees for best revival of a musical. One cast member up for a Tony is Katie Finneran, who plays a barfly in a molting owl-feather jacket. She is hilarious in A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing, a Christmas Eve number with Hayes in which she insists that she is "not a pickup — sociable maybe, but not a pickup'' and ends up dancing atop the bar before going home with him.

Promises, Promises was the only Bacharach-David musical on Broadway. "Somehow I lived through it and I'm still alive,'' Bacharach said. "But this has been the hardest thing I've ever done. The work seemed endless. . . . (We) have written songs, dropped songs, I've seen my wife six times in four months, I take too many pills, I don't sleep anymore, I close my eyes and music goes through my head all night — I'm wiped out by this show.''

It's a shame the pair never returned to musical theater, because they had a knack for the hummable tune and clever turn of phrase. I think my favorite thing in the show is David's lyrics, such as those for the hit song:

"What do you get when you kiss a guy? / You get enough germs to catch pneumonia. / After you do he'll never phone ya. / I'll never fall in love again.''

Songwriting doesn't get any better.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

Bacharach-David score elevates 'Promises, Promises' 05/22/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 18, 2010 7:04pm]
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