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Broadway Reviews

Promises, Promises

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 25, 2010

Promises, Promises Book by Neil Simon. Music by Burt Bacharach. Lyrics by Hal David. Based on the screenplay “The Apartment” by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. By arrangement with MGM On Stage. Directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Music Director Phil Reno. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Bruce Pask. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Hair and wig design by Tom Watson. Cast: Sean Hayes, Kristin Chenoweth, Tony Goldwyn, Katie Finneran, Dick Latessa, Brooks Ashmanskas, Peter Benson, Seán Martin Hingston, Ken Land, Cameron Adams, Ashley Amber, Helen Anker, Nathan Balser, Wendi Bergamini, Nikki Renee Daniels, Sarah Jane Everman, Chelsea Krombach, Keith Kühl, Matt Loehr, Mayumi Miguel, Brian O'Brien, Sarah O'Gleby, Adam Perry, Megan Sikora, Matt Wall, Ryan Watkinson, Kristen Beth Williams.
Theatre: Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway between West 52nd and 53rd Streets
Schedule: Tuesday at 7 pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 pm, Sunday at 3 pm.
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission
Ticket prices: $56.50 - $301.50
Tickets: Telecharge

Sean Hayes and the company
Photo by Joan Marcus.

When the shiny sheen of 1960s suits (for the men), hair (for the women), and capitalistic optimism (for everyone) isn't enough to dazzle, let alone blind, who's at fault? Regarding the paint-by-numbers revival of Promises, Promises that just opened at the Broadway, one may be tempted to blame the making-his-debut leading man, his miscast costar, or the ghosts of vanished great that haunt the show as if it were Follies. Though all these play a role in the production's less-than-total success, they also ultimately highlight a director who exemplifies all of these problems in his own way.

That would be Rob Ashford. Like Sean Hayes, who's tasked with occupying a role created by Jack Lemmon (on screen, in The Apartment) and Jerry Orbach (onstage, in this musical adaptation), he's making his Broadway bow as a director, and isn't quite equipped for the task. Like leading lady Kristin Chenoweth, he's proved himself capable (or more) in various other works, but isn't operating within his comfort zone this time out. And faced with a show as acclaimed for its original choreography (by Michael Bennett) as its book (Neil Simon) and score (Burt Bacharach and Hal David), he's forced to prove that his own work at its best is never quite genius.

Watching this Promises, Promises, you can't help but absorb the idea's, well, promise. With the popularity of the TV series Mad Men, the 1960s are back in vogue; and since sex and ambition have never really gone out of fashion, the story about young go-getter Chuck Baxter (Hayes), who loans out his convenient apartment to adulterous executives in exchange for professional advancement, would seem to still be relevant. And certainly Bacharach and David's work is timeless, their songs (and the undulating orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, who's pared them down but not gutted them), all spine-swaying and liquidy, always a peerless evocation of an erotically charged New York.

Sean Hayes
Photo by Joan Marcus.

But in the theatre, a solid foundation alone is never enough. Under Ashford's hand, what should be machine-oil slick comes dangerously close to sleazy, what ought to be buoyant often feels bloated, and more often than not craft bears more than a passing resemblance to cruft.

For example, one can understand that the Tony- and Emmy-winning Chenoweth, with five other major Broadway musicals under her belt, might feel the role of Fran, Chuck's secret crush and the on-again-off-again of the executive Sheldrake (Tony Goldwyn) who guards the gate to his future, is too small for her stature. But Ashford should have insisted that the character's two "new" songs ("I Say a Little Prayer" and "A House Is Not a Home") either not be inserted, or be added and staged in ways that prevent, rather than accelerate, their scenes from looking like jukebox musical–reject material. Shows should not bog down for Chenoweth or Bacharach-David—to say nothing of the two together.

The choreography is also not a useful leavening agent. As with Ashford's work in Cry-Baby, it's more busy than centered, as if it's trying to distract the audience's attention rather than engage it. The gaggle of three-piece-suited chorus boys he has leaping and rolling through "Basketball," Chuck's rhapsodic appraisal of Fran, prevents Hayes from charming you one-on-one. Similarly, "Turkey Lurkey Time," the delightfully extraneous showpiece near the end of Act I, doesn't summon its lyrics' seasonal joy, and feels like a drunken, flavorless open-mic night rather than the good-time, popcorn-popper explosion Bennett devised.

A handful of cacklingly over-the-top performances also threaten the evening's cohesion. Most notable is Katie Finneran, who's hilarious but uncomfortably unhinged as a drunken vamp that comes on to Chuck for a couple of scenes in Act II, and whose work resembles almost no one else's. A quartet of scheming higher-ups, who jockey for the keys to Chuck's place and are played by Brooks Ashmanskas, Peter Benson, Seán Martin Hingston, and Ken Land, deploy googly-eyed grimacing more apt for that other 60s office-worker comedy, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Hayes usually behaves himself, and in general seems much more at home here than he did as Mr. Applegate in the Encores! Summer Stars Damn Yankees two years ago. He's smoothly funny and insecure in his opening scenes, casually narrating his nothing life to the audience, and fantasizing Fran's fantasies of him. If he's an uneven singer, he brings real verve to his songs. But the lengths he goes to try to top Finneran in their scenes together make it seem as if he's regressing into Jack from Will & Grace; he also is never quite believable negotiating Chuck's crucial Act II transition from life's bystander to the reach-out-and-take-it artist.

Kristin Chenoweth
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Chenoweth's performance is utterly bereft of the kewpie-doll squeaking that has characterized much of her musical-comedy work, and she adopts an alluringly smoky voice that seems to emanate from every strand of her Donna Reed wig. But she's the type of singer who needs to be able to let loose, and her big solos ("Knowing When to Leave" and "Whoever You Are") are more about facing down conflicted feelings, which cages her in. Fran needs to find strength and acceptance in her ordinary other-womanliness; because Chenoweth never does, Fran feels like a cipher until the final curtain comes down.

Goldwyn, however, is appropriately greasy as Sheldrake, singing genuinely and wielding just enough regret about his actions to keep you from hissing him outright. Dick Latessa is sadly underused as Chuck's doctor neighbor, but gleams in his few opportunities at the center of the action. Helen Anker does some cunningly calculated as Sheldrake's secretary, who's been tracking a lot more than just his meeting schedule.

This is a serious-minded musical comedy, then, that requires everyone work in the same high rise. Ashford's uneven work with the actors, all-over-the-map choreography, and uncertainty about whether the show should be one- or three-dimensional keep the doors firmly locked. The same indecision can be seen in Scott Pask's set, which sometimes look like a Laugh In leftover and at other times like it belongs in, well, any other Neil Simon play; Bruce Pask's costumes also alternate rockily between subdued and zany. Only Donald Holder's lights paint a consistent picture throughout.

Well, the lights and the writing. Simon's scenes still steam, sizzle, and scorch, models of ideally constructed comedy even after 40 years; and Bacharach's music and David's lyrics establish a matching language of love and business and everything in between that has no direct analogue in any other Broadway musical. But without an interpreter to align them properly with everything else, this Promises, Promises feels like it's in desperate need of unifying premises, premises.

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