Burt Bacharach and Hal David's 1968 hit "Promises, Promises" has been called too silly to bring back. But the revival that opened on Broadway last night embraces this very '60s brand of fluff with contagious gusto.
Led by Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth, the show is like a big dessert cart -- with just enough bittersweet grace notes to prevent things from being marshmallow-cloying.
Directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford, the production has been slightly backdated to 1962. This places it closer to the release of the musical's source, Billy Wilder's movie "The Apartment," but also puts contemporary audiences in a "Mad Men" frame of mind.
As in the TV show, there's a lot of philandering married executives at the Consolidated Life insurance company. Except that, unlike Don Draper, these guys are too low on the totem pole to afford hotel rooms. So they borrow the studio apartment of their single colleague, Chuck Baxter (Hayes) -- who himself pines for Fran Kubelik (Chenoweth), a dining-room employee hiding a melancholy streak under a bubbly blond exterior.
Bacharach's brilliant score is the epitome of the pop-Broadway hybrid, and this revival adds two of his best songs to nuggets such as "I'll Never Fall in Love Again."
Ashford has said these extra tracks are filling "emotional beats" in the story, but it's clear they're filling Cheno rather than emo needs: Fran just didn't have enough solos. The insertion of "I Say a Little Prayer" and "A House Is Not a Home" makes little narrative sense, but then narrative sense was never the strong point of Neil Simon's book.
After all, this is the kind of show in which a bar scene serves purely as a vehicle for drunken antics -- specifically, those of Katie Finneran, who, after her Tony-winning turn in 2001's "Noises Off," confirms she's a comic genius of the first order.
Amazingly, Hayes holds his own against her.
Indeed, the "Will & Grace" star is a revelation. Chuck is a paradox -- a self-effacing lead -- but the actor handles the transitions between the character's passive bearing and his active imagination with dexterity.
Hayes, Chenoweth and the excellent supporting cast -- including Dick Latessa -- benefit from Ashford's direction: The staging of pop songs has rarely been as sharp as it is in this show.
On the other hand, Ashford underwhelms as choreographer, which is odd considering the bang-up dances he created for "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Cry-Baby." The biggest letdown is "Turkey Lurkey Time," an ensemble number with a single purpose: to kill. Here, it delivers only a flesh wound.
But this isn't enough to spoil the fun. "Promises, Promises" is a candy-flavored ride that more than delivers on its title.
For a bunch of desk jockeys, the boys from Consolidated Life are surprisingly athletic. In Rob Ashford’s revival of the 1968 musical “Promises, Promises,” which opened on Sunday night at the Broadway Theater, the male members of the chorus demonstrate that wearing skinny suits needn’t keep corporate executives from playing leap frog, turning cart wheels, bouncing off desks or frugging like, well, mad men.
Yet for all their gymnastic exertions, there’s no escaping the feeling that these guys are one set of really tired businessmen. No matter how high they jump or how much body heat they expend, they never manage to push the evening’s temperature much above lukewarm.
Even that singing sparkplug Kristin Chenoweth, who stars opposite a charming Sean Hayes in his Broadway debut, seems to feel the prevailing lassitude. “Promises, Promises,” which features a book by Neil Simon and songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, comes fully to life only briefly, at the beginning of its second act, when a comic volcano named Katie Finneran erupts into molten hilarity. Otherwise the white-hot charms this musical is said to have once possessed are left sleeping.
Tepid was not an adjective anyone was using after the opening of the original “Promises, Promises,” a story of sex in the office based on the Oscar-winning Billy Wilder film “The Apartment” (1960). “You feel more in the mood to send it a congratulatory telegram than write a review,” Clive Barnes, the critic for The New York Times, said of the show, adding that Mr. Bacharach’s music “reflects today rather than the day before yesterday.”
Of course, todays, especially the todays of the hip and trendy, have a way of turning into yellowing yesterdays. When “Promises, Promises” was revived by the Encores! series of concerts in 1997, its leering view of secretaries as disposable playthings seemed uncomfortably quaint, despite a flashy shindig of a production by Rob Marshall. And the bubbly Bacharach-David songs (including the pop hit “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”) had taken on the synthetic whiff of elevator music.
So the announcement last year that “Promises, Promises” was to be remounted on Broadway would have provoked a blanket “what are they thinking?” response, except for one thing: a seductive, styled-to-the-teeth little television show called “Mad Men.” Set in a Manhattan advertising agency around the time of the Kennedy presidency, this AMC series made it safe for early 1960s sexism to come out of the closet, provided it was treated with anthropological distance and mouth-watering period glamour.
I’m presuming that “Mad Men” is the reason this “Promises, Promises” is set not in the late ’60s, as the original was, but in 1962. Anyway, instead of wearing bright minidresses and bangs, the women are trussed up in midcalf suits (designed by Bruce Pask) and stiff, lacquered hair, as rectangular (or square) in appearance as the modernist architectural motifs of Scott Pask’s set. (Bruce Pask is also the director of men’s fashion for T: The Times Style Magazine.)
These office girls are, to be honest, rather frumpy things, and the men with whom they make assignations aren’t exactly hot stuff. Mr. Ashford, the show’s choreographer as well as director, seems to regard the members of both sexes with faint distaste. Even when they cut loose, as in the big (and smartly reinvented) office Christmas party number, they don’t seem to be having any fun.
This joyless world is the backdrop for the moral coming of age of Chuck Baxter (Mr. Hayes), an unremarkable young man on the make who discovers an unexpected route up the ladder. That’s by lending his apartment to married men in need of trysting places, who include the head of the company, the handsome, coldblooded J. D. Sheldrake (Tony Goldwyn in a thankless part). He, it turns out, is having an affair with the object of Chuck’s romantic fantasies, the adorable Fran Kubelik (Ms. Chenoweth).
Chuck pines, sucks up, drinks up, suffers pangs of conscience and, in the second act, develops a spine, all the while confiding to the audience in ingratiating asides. Mr. Hayes, best known for the sitcom “Will & Grace,” locates a winning physical clownishness within this sad-sack character (originated, believe it or not, by Jerry Orbach). He also has an agreeable, suitably conversational singing voice.
Yet except when he’s with Ms. Finneran (more on whom later), who plays a crazy barfly, his emotions often seem pale to the point of colorlessness. It’s easy enough to like Chuck but hard to feel for him. And his relationship with Ms. Chenoweth’s Fran feels more like that of a younger brother than a would-be lover and protector.
As for Ms. Chenoweth, dearly though I love her, this hyper-talented star was not meant to play Fran, and you sense that she knows it. Fran is a vulnerable waif; Ms. Chenoweth is a diva who can’t help taking charge of any stage. She is also unwisely made up and coiffed to resemble Angie Dickinson (the former Mrs. Burt Bacharach, as it happens) at her 1960s peak of hard-sheen attractiveness. This gal is nobody’s doormat.
Two recognizable songs by Mr. Bacharach and Mr. David not in the original score have been interpolated for Ms. Chenoweth to sing: “I Say a Little Prayer” and “A House Is Not a Home.” But though she works hard on putting them over, with inflections borrowed variously from Motown and Dolly Parton, Bacharach requires a cool, low-simmering style that is not Ms. Chenoweth’s.
Nor is it a style that most of the cast (which also includes the salty veteran Dick Latessa) seems equipped to sell, and the songs tend to blend into a trickly stream. The nudging jokes, on the other hand, stick out sorely, not because they’re politically incorrect but because they’re usually so darn dated. (Chuck, stumbling onto a couple necking at an office party, observes that they must be especially drunk, since they’re married to each other.)
Nothing in the languorous first act prepares you for the jolt of energy that begins the second. That’s when Ms. Finneran shows up as a singles-bar stalker named Marge, a molting flamingo of a woman whose pickup line is that she is not a pickup. When Marge homes in on Chuck, the evening’s first sparks are struck, and we are reminded that sexual desperation can be very, very funny.
Doing the freshest variations I’ve seen in years on over-the-top, deluded drunkenness, Ms. Finneran and Mr. Hayes turn their single shared number, “A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing,” into a showstopper you wish would never end. Ms. Finneran is on view for only, say, a quarter of an hour. I can’t be sure exactly, because it’s true that time not only flies but also stretches deliciously when you’re having fun. That means that once Ms. Finneran exits, it’s all too easy to count the remaining minutes.
For anyone who thought turning popular movies into dopey musicals was strictly a 21st-century phenomenon, a little history lesson has begun.
Back in the 1960s, long before Legally Blonde or High Fidelity was a twinkle in any stage producer's eye, it occurred to some folks that The Apartment — the Billy Wilder classic about a young office worker who tries to succeed in business by letting executives use his bachelor pad for extramarital trysts — might do well by the song-and-dance treatment.
Hence Promises, Promises, the splashy misadventure now in revival (* *½ out of four) at the Broadway Theatre.
Promises was hardly a dud in its first and only previous Broadway incarnation, running for more than three years and earning leading man Jerry Orbach a Tony Award. And its tuneful score includes such Burt Bacharach/Hal David favorites as the title number and I'll Never Fall in Love Again.
But the songs strain to fit Neil Simon's messy book, which lurches from hokey comedy to movie-of-the-week melodrama. And this new production seems to have two main goals: to exploit contemporary audiences' taste for retro kitsch and, more nobly, to provide a vehicle for a few talented stars.
Those who come for the kitsch won't be disappointed. Like last year's revival of Bye Bye Birdie , this Promises revels in pre-cultural revolution fashion follies. Bruce Pask's brightly colored dress suits and Tom Watson's gravity-defying hair and wig design winkingly evoke working women of a more, um, innocent era.
The stars aren't quite as well-served. Playing the beleaguered corporate climber Chuck "C.C." Baxter, the role introduced on stage by Orbach (and on screen by Jack Lemmon), Sean Hayes has some endearing moments. But Simon's quaint zingers stretch the limits of his charm and comic panache.
Kristin Chenoweth is cast as the object of Chuck's unrequited affection, Fran Kubelik, a drippy damsel in distress who in no way accommodates the actress' natural effervescence. Chenoweth does at least manage to bring some torch and twang to her songs — among them the Bacharach/David classics I Say a Little Prayer and A House Is Not a Home, both of which were added for this production.
Other performers, alas, fail to deliver the breezy rhythmic and emotional intuition that Bacharach's melodies demand. Hayes' bleating bari-tenor is far too stiff, as is the warmer singing of Tony Goldwyn, otherwise adroit as Chuck's superficially dashing but weasely boss.
Katie Finneran has a crowd-pleasing turn as a boozy floozy who tries to lift Chuck's spirits, and the marvelous Dick Latessa lends winning support as an elderly neighbor who helps bring Chuck closer to Fran in the second act.
All ends well for the young lead characters, predictably. Still, after an uneven and at times tiresome two and a half hours, you'll leave Promises unfulfilled.