The Summer season at Stages St. Louis continues with a carefully crafted and generally appealing production of Promises, Promises, the Burt Bacharach/Hal David/Neil Simon musical from the 1960s based on the outstanding Billy Wilder/I.A.L. Diamond movie The Apartment. The film is both funny and cynical, a romantic core story wrapped in layers of corruption and degenerate behavior. Its success was due to brilliant performances by Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon as well as the deft, pitch-perfect screenplay.
The stage adaptation adds the third element of music to the mix. Neil Simon's book follows the screenplay closely enough to retain its complex atmosphere, with exquisite tensions and blistering satire laid over a potential for door-slamming farce. By and large, Hal David's character-revealing lyrics complement Simon's dialog nicely. Burt Bacharach's music, though, is often curiously out of synch with the story, setting a light, commercial pop feeling, with its overtones of teenage sentimentality, against the book's complicated but never ingenuous tone.
Fortunately, the Stages production, like the movie, features outstanding performances in the principal roles. Local favorite Ben Nordstrom, as the ambitious underling Chuck Baxter, handles the often challenging songs with his usual technical mastery, but alsoand more importantlywith a brilliant flair for bringing out the dramatic potential of the lyrics. His boyish appearance and always appealing stage presence are perfect for Chuck's odd but charming character, a blend of half-hearted corporate pirate and small-town boy.
As J.D. Sheldrake, the oily chief of the genuine corporate pirates, Michael Halling exudes the arrogance of power. His rich and powerful baritone voice is good enough to add an interesting degree of ambiguity to Sheldrake's cynically plaintive song "Wanting Things" by making this otherwise repulsive character's moment of self-analysis one of the evening's musical highlights.
Tari Kelley as Fran Kubelik, Sheldrake's semi-willing mistress and the light of Chuck's life, is a naturally appealing actor and singer whose ease and grace reflect both talent and discipline. It is a tribute to her technique that "I'll Never Fall In Love Again," the show's best-known song and the one most out of tune with the script, still turns out to be a winning musical number.
The role of Marge MacDougall, a tipsy barfly whom Chuck picks up after becoming disillusioned about Fran, is one of those plum cameos that actresses dream of landing, a short but telling comic turn rich with potential for physical and vocal brilliance. Brandi Wooten plays it to the absolute hilt in a performance that Stages fans will be sharing fond reminiscences about for years to come.
Richard Pruitt is physically and vocally splendid as Dr. Dreyfuss, the long-suffering GP whose skills save everything at the show's most crucial pointtypically, a poignant mixture of drama and comedy. This is another plum character role, and Mr. Pruitt, a nimble, amiable bear of a man with a strong singing voice, is perfectly cast in it.
The ensemble, well-schooled by director Michael Hamilton, is strong throughout; there were a few opening-night jitters, but nothing that interrupted the smooth, briskly paced flow of the production.
Special mention should be made of the set and lighting, by Mark Halpin and Matthew McCarthy respectively. The design involves large panels with multiple panes of light which change color as the mood and place shift, making the delineation of the show's multiple locations easy and effective.
Promises, Promises is never going to make it to the top shelf of my collection of favorite musicals, but it offers plenty of memorable moments, it ends with a satisfying snap, and the Stages production (which will run through August 15) isas we have come to expectartistically and dramatically very satisfying, indeed. For ticket information call 314-821-2407 or visit www.stagesstlouis.org.