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What's It All About? Bacharach Reimagined

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

What's It All About? Bacharach Reimagined
left to right: Nathaly Lopez, James Williams, Laura Dreyfuss, James Nathan Hopkins, Kyle Riabko, Daniel Woods, and Daniel Bailen
Photo by Eric Ray Davidson.
Is it a triumph to transplant an artist from his natural milieu to one in which he sits uncomfortably, even if the results are good? The notion that genius transfers effortlessly, no matter what is done to it, lies at the core of What's It All About: Bacharach Reimagined, the new show that just opened at New York Theatre Workshop. Like many of the biggest risk-taking endeavors, this one is equal parts brilliant and baffling, as stunning to behold as it is perplexing in its particulars.

Though you may intuit that you're in for a Burt Bacharach revue, this one hardly classifies as either traditional or staid and soggy (as was the case with Roundabout's dance-centered The Look of Love from a decade ago). Instead, this one is both as comfortable as a well-worn armchair and as revolutionary in its way as the full-blown musical Rent was in its own in this space 17 years ago. And that may be attributed, for better and worse, to Kyle Riabko.

The 26-year-old singer and sometimes stage actor has taken some two dozen classic Bacharach songs and filtered them throuhg his own indie, rock-dates-folk sensibility—with dashes of emo, hip-hop, and R&B thrown in — to prove that these compositions truly do not belong just to his parents' generation. An additional sextet of multitalented singer-instrumentalists, direction from choreographer Steven Hoggett, and a set (by Christine Jones and Brett J. Benakis) that evokes the kitschy coziness of a dollar store–decorated basement apartment, and you have a show aimed right between the eyes of the audiences who've so loved the likes of Spring Awakening and Once (with which, not coincidentally, Riabko and Hoggett have been respectively associated).

It's a refreshing take, to be sure, and one that transforms the works into natural occupants of today's younger and bolder concert stages. But just as one director's visionary spin can uproot even a bulletproof show — Lincoln Center's current Macbeth, for example — so too can overfooling with uniqueness subvert what defined the original material in the first place. And that's what's happened here.

If Bacharach, who's responsible for an imposing catalog of major hits, is hard to classify, you know his work the instant you hear it. Nothing else insinuates, shimmies, and struts quite the way it does, whether any specific song is a plaintive ballad, a jaunty uptempo, or something in between. Yet despite this, as a general rule no two of his songs ever sound quite the same. Although Riabko has reinvented everything he's touched, his even bigger accomplishment has been to obliterate both these essential qualities.

By thrusting every number into this lamp-and-couch-riddled, dimly it (by Japhy Weideman) concept, slowing down most of the tempos, and dividing into myriad pieces certain offerings (the title song and "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" being the most endlessly heard examples) that might challenge the flow, Riabko has ensured that almost every song sounds like every other and that few convey the broader range of deep feelings Bacharach has spent his career charting. This is all about standing at the edge and steeling yourself to jump, or perhaps staring into a Jack Daniels bottle.

Because each song typically melts into the next, there's little time for either applause or absorption, though a basic theme — "through line" is too strong a term — of Riabko romancing and then splitting from a girl (Laura Dreyfuss) eventually emerges. They romance (to "Anyone Who Had a Heart" and "This Guy's in Love With You"), split up (by way of "Walk On By" and "A House Is Not a Home," while the revolving stage slowly fills with chairs), and sort of move on to wonder why they're there at all. Which, naturally, cues "Alfie."

That song, performed by Riabko as a simple guitar solo, is the evening's single most enveloping sequence because it removes all the new artificial barriers Riabko has imposed and lets you experience the music in its most raw and honest form. Like his arrangements, Riabko's performing abilities as demonstrated here are polished but chilly, engaging more for their inescapability than their artistic worth. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, he very rarely departs from center stage.) Dreyfuss is generally more charismatic, but rarely allowed to be warmer or to emerge as anything close to the character Riabko does.

Even so, both are talented and navigate all this expertly. The same is true of the three other key performers. Nathaly Lopez scores with a searing if preternaturally bleak "Don't Make Me Over"; and James Nathan Hopkins and Daniel Woods moan comically, if effectively, through a duet of "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" while hardly looking at each other (or, for that matter, up from the floor). Daniel Bailen and James Williams don't get any notable time in the spotlight, but provide energetic backing on bass and percussion.

Like all of them, What's It All About is exceptionally committed. The clarity of Riabko and co-conceiver David Lane Seltzer's vision, as suavely executed by Hoggett's fluid staging and pointed dances, imbues the entire work with a confidence that makes it legitimately entertaining even when you're not sure it wants to be. (Only during a grating and listless post–curtain call encore of "What's New Pussycat" do things threaten to implode.)

Even so, the self-indulgent heaviness imparts too strongly the feeling that Riabko has ultimately made the show much more about his outlook and his own gifts than about the work of the man to whom he's supposedly paying tribute, and that makes What's It All About unfulfilling. In spite of its indisputable quality, the show is limited by the darkness that Bacharach's distinctive style and voice are not allowed to fully penetrate.


What's It All About? Bacharach Reimagined
Through January 5
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
Current Performance Schedule at ticketcentral.com