May 1, 2010

"Promises, Promises" Doesn't Meet Its Obligations

The first Broadway show my pit musician husband K ever played was the original production of Promises, Promises back in 1968. So, there was no question that we were going to see the show’s first ever Broadway revival, which opened at The Broadway Theatre last Sunday.

The 1968 production drew raves (Clive Barnes opened his New York Times review by saying that he wanted more to “send it a congratulatory telegram than write a review.”)  Audiences agreed and the show went on to play for a then-impressive 1,281 performances.

There was a lot to cheer.  Promises, Promises is an adaptation of the classic 1960 Billy Wilder comedy “The Apartment” with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.  The stage version starred the great Jerry Orbach in Lemmon’s role as Chuck Baxter, a young office worker so eager to get ahead in his company that he lets the firm’s married executives use his apartment for their trysts with the hope that they’ll repay him with a promotion. Complications arise when the object of his own affection, a waitresses in the executive dining room named Fran Kubelik (then played by Jill O’Hara) turns out to be one boss’s mistress. 

Neil Simon, then at the top of his wise-cracking game, wrote the musical’s book.  An up-and-coming young choreographer named Michael Bennett created the dances and the ensemble was filled with dancers—Kelly (then Carole) Bishop, Baayork Lee and Donna McKechnie—who would shortly create iconic roles in A Chorus Line. (Click here to see a YouTube clip of them in the Promises, Promises showstopper “Turkey Lurkey Time”).

But it was the score, composed by that era’s cooler-than-cool music men Burt Bacharach and Hal David, that drew the most attention. Barnes, for one, couldn’t say enough about the show’s “modern pop and delightful” music and its “happily colloquial lyrics.”

It is all, alas, a different song now. Promises, Promises’ sexist premise doesn’t sit all that well with post-feminist audiences.  And yes, I know that “Mad Men” is supposed to have made bed-hopping men and the women who adore them hip again. But this new production of the musical lacks the self-satirical irony that makes such retro behavior an acceptably guilty pleasure on the TV series.

Clever casting might have helped but the leads in this production are off the mark. Sean Hayes, who will probably forever be known as the outrageously gay Jack on the old NBC sitcom “Will & Grace” and who recently came out in “The Advocate” (click here to read that) takes on the Lemmon/Orbach role. Hayes is a charming comedian and sings just well enough but, and I feel bad saying this, he works better as a supporting player than a leading man.

Kristin Chenoweth certainly has leading-lady chops and I get why the producers decided to go with her as Fran. Chenoweth’s teeny physique and Minnie Mouse speaking voice do suggest the character's girlishness and, of course, there’s the hope that the fans who discovered her in Wicked when they were girls will come out to see her in Promises, Promises now that they’re on the threshold of young womanhood.  But her feistiness has always been part of Chenoweth’s appeal and that’s not who Fran is. Plus, director Rob Ashford and costume designer Bruce Pask have done her up to look like a sophisticate (more glamorous Betty Draper than the naive outer borough Peggy Olson from the first season of “Mad Men”) and that’s not who Fran should be either.

Chenoweth distorts the show in another way too. To beef up a smallish role that had only two solo numbers, the revival has interpolated two of Bacharach and David’s biggest hits—“I Say a Little Prayer” and “A House Is Not a Home—into the score, even though their lyrics don’t fit the show’s action or her character’s motivation.  K, who still knows the score by heart after all these years, shook his head and sighed heavily at the conclusion of each of those numbers.

The one bright spot, judging by the cheers at the curtain call, was Katie Finneran’s second-act performance as a woman the jilted Chuck picks up in a bar.  Finneran gives a go-for-broke, physically comedic performance that might have made Lucille Ball proud. And although Finneran was a bit too broad for my taste (Christine Baranski’s world-weary tartness in the 1997 Encores! staging seems more fitting for the role) she did liven things up.

But don’t panic if you’ve already bought tickets for the current production.  It’s fun to see familiar faces like Hayes and Chenoweth's in-person, Ashford has created all kinds of stage business to keep you engaged, and supporting players like Finneran and Dick Latessa as Chuck’s nosey next door neighbor, who fortuitously is also a doctor, are pros who know how to entertain. You’ll probably have a good enough time. Even if not a memorable one.

As we walked down the street for a late supper at the venerable Italian restaurant Remi, K wistfully reminisced about the original production of Promises, Promises.  Finally, over glasses of wine and bowls of pasta that added up to far more than the $86 Chuck sang about paying for his apartment in the show, we acknowledged that sometimes, you just can’t go home again.   


Sarah B. Roberts said...

Love the backstory about K. Thanks for sharing. I was reluctant to see this production before it even began and now even more really have no desire. Your comment about seeing the familiar faces of Chenoweth and Hayes is still no draw for me. Life is short and the wallet is too slim to waste time and/or money.

prattdesign said...

Sean Hayes is perfect in this role and communicates the gentle sincerity of Jack Lemmon's Chuck Baxter. I saw the original and now have seen the revival. No comparison! This show is even better than the original, I feel, because the ideas of standing up for yourself and doing the right thing continue to ring true. One more thing: on the night I saw the show, Kristin Chenowith was sick, so her understudy, Sara Jane Everson, went on and gave a flawless performance! I could not have been more delighted. Add to this seeing Sean, Sara, Dick Latessa, and Tony Goldwyn at the stage door and what a fantastic night at the theater I had!