Tuesday, August 17, 2010

REVIEWS: "Promises, Promises"


While there are some inherent problems with the production, the current Broadway revival of the 1960s show “Promises, Promises” by Burt Bacharach and Hal David (music and lyrics) and Neil Simon (book) is at its heart a fun and engaging show. It’s a perfect example of how talent and presence (and strong staging and direction) can overcome the weaknesses of a production.

The show has had its share of minor controversies: at the Tony nominations earlier this year, tongues started wagging when respected Broadway veteran Kristen Chenoweth was not nominated. Similarly, a minor tempest also emerged when a gay columnist in Newsweek attributed some of the negative reviews of the show to the difficulty of an openly-gay actor like Sean Hayes playing the lead in a "straight" romantic comedy (article is available here).

It’s easy to see why some people felt Chenoweth was miscast, playing a role that might have been more suitable for a a young ingenue making her name in the role; and, in truth, Hayes and Chenoweth don’t have a lot of chemistry on stage.

Another problem may lie in the original show itself. Many of the songs feel shoe-horned into the production—while many are snappy tunes (“I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and “Promises, Promises” both have since become standards), many don’t feel as though they truly serve the characters or drive the story. (Indeed, two Bacharach standards were actually added to the new revival for Chenoweth to sing: “I Say a Little Prayer” and “A House is Not a Home,” adding to this feeling.)



Fortunately, the show overcomes these problems for the most part on the strength of the show’s talent, particularly the leads. Chenoweth’s dynamo voice is legendary, and Hayes more than holds his own, and connects with the audience early, carrying much of the production on good will and charisma. The show also moves quickly, allowing little let time for the show's energy or the audience's interest to flag. It's also clear why supporting player Katie Finneran received the show’s sole Tony—she's a scream and really does steal the show in her one scene. But it's not
at the expense of the show or other performers.

I saw this show as a Sunday matinee and was impressed by how much energy the performers put in at the very start (I learned afterwards that it was their only show of the day—no evening performance to keep a reserve for—which may have helped!).

“Promises, Promises” is adapted from one of my favorite films of all time, “The Apartment,” starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray, written and directed by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond and directed by Wilder. Though the show stays mostly true to the through-line of the film, the show still does divert a bit from the original story, even changing for some reason the lead’s name from “C.C.” (for Calvin Clifford, though everyone calls him “Bud”) to “Chuck.” In any case, the play certainly stands apart and does not diminish the film’s achievement as one of the best and most sophisticated comedies ever (it consistently ranks among the top ten romantic comedies of all time, and among the best comedies).

Aside from the great music, the popularity of “Mad Men” probably helped drive the revival of “Promises, Promises” (as it has the upcoming revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” which is scheduled for a new 2011 revival with Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame). To that end, the production design captures the bright-colored tone and feel of the space age ‘60s era perfectly.

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