Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Theater Review: Promises, Promises

Revivals, which have in recent years become customary on Broadway, are a tricky business. Too many factors, both rational and sentimental, often interfere with our being capable of giving ourselves over completely to a restoration. We tend to be nostalgic about shows we saw when we were younger — when the world seemed relatively untroubled, when we gratefully listened to the voices of actors without the aid of sound amplifiers and when it didn’t cost a hundred and forty dollars for a theater ticket. Although it’s not usually the case, a revival can sometimes be as good as or, possibly, even superior to the original. Recent productions of La Cage aux Folles and Fences, both reviewed by this critic, are two examples.

This leads us to the revival of Promises, Promises at New York’s Broadway Theatre. Based on Billy Wilder’s brilliant screenplay for The Apartment, the musical version, which originally opened in December of 1968, was given a zippy, innovative, contemporary score by Burt Bachrach and clever, crisp lyrics by Hal David. And Neil Simon’s incisive, quick-witted book just about insured that there would be enthusiastic audience acceptance.

There was, too, the estimable Jerry Orbach in the role of Chuck Baxter, a charming, inoffensive nebbish who is promised fast promotions by the top executives of his firm whenever he agrees to turn over the key to his apartment for their off-duty enjoyment.

Baxter is now being played by Sean Hayes. Hayes, who might remind you of the young Donald O’Connor, sings and dances competently. But his timing and comedic skills are his real strengths. When he learns that his boss (a fine Tony Goldwyn) wants the key to the apartment once again, he joins his employer in singing that “it’s our little secret, for now and all time.” But when Baxter turns to address the audience (“Listen I wouldn’t be too quick to judge a decent executive like Mr. Sheldrake”), he telegraphs the unease he really feels. What little tolerance Baxter did possess evaporates quickly, however, when he discovers that the girl his boss will take to the apartment is Fran Kubelick (Kristin Chenoweth), the hostess in the company cafeteria, for whom Baxter carries a torch.

The feisty, lovely Chenoweth, a tiny performer with huge eyes and a heavenly voice, is one of Broadway’s treasures. Her line readings are always apt and perfectly timed, and she might well be the great blond hope for our musicals today. I certainly wasn’t surprised when Ben Brantley, the main theater critic for The New York Times, once suggested that “she may be the best argument for cloning that the theater has to offer.” But by beefing up her part, originally a featured role, and adding two songs (though good ones, in fact) that appear to be forced into the production, they have weakened an extremely fine libretto.

Rob Ashford, the show’s director and choreographer, has provided some spirited dance routines; however, those of us who remember the late, great Michael Bennett’s original staging and dance numbers might well be somewhat disappointed. But the colorful sets (Scott Pask) and costumes (Bruce Pask), as well as the lighting design (Donald Holder) are commendable. 

And there are excellent contributions made by cast members. They include, most notably, Dick Latessa, a doctor and Baxter’s neighbor, who, because of the noises he hears through the wall, assumes that Baxter is some sort of sex addict; and Kate Finneran, an inebriated pickup in a bar, who in the short time she is given on stage, manages to walk off with both the show and a Tony (best supporting actress in a musical). When performers like that are in the spotlight, you might be willing to forgive anything. And yet, it appears that Promises, Promises has gone, in the words of Cole Porter, from “major to minor” entertainment.