Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1998
The Theater Barn has a hit on its hands with its charming production of “Promises, Promises.” This production has everything their “Grease” needed and lacked – energy and good casting. The Theater Barn proves that you don’t need a big budget or a spectacular set to stage a good show – you just need talent properly placed, a strong script, and hard work.
I applaud the person who selected “Promises, Promises” as a part of the 1998 season. Its composer, Burt Bacharach, has been experiencing something of a revival recently – what with the 1960’s being the next big thing in retro and his charming cameo appearance in the cult film hit “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery”. But “Promises, Promises” has long been a show in need of a revival, and I, for one, am pleased to see it back on the boards.
Producer David Merrick pulled out all the stops in 1968 when he assembled a team of hit-makers to adapt Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s Oscar winning film 1960 “The Apartment” into a Broadway musical. Bacharach and his lyricist Hal David were at the peak of their careers with three Oscar nominations under their belt; playwright Neil Simon had been churning out hit after Broadway hit since 1960; and star Jerry Orbach, who originated the role of El Gallo in “The Fantasticks”, was rapidly on the rise. “Promises, Promises” was a huge hit, nominated for a Tony award as Best Musical but losing out to “1776” (the other shows in contention that year were “Hair” and “Zorba”.)
Unlike many other musicals in the 1960’s which attempted to reflect the popular music of the day, “Promises, Promises” alone succeeded because Merrick hired the most popular song writing team of the time to write the score. The result is a perfect microcosm of the late ’60’s – a time capsule waiting to be opened.
And that is exactly what the Theater Barn production does. They have complimented Bacharach and David’s score perfectly with dead-on period costumes and make-up by Janet Pachucki and Jonathan Netek. White go-go boots, teased hair, white eyeshadow and lipstick all set the show firmly in 1968. It is almost as good as watching an (unedited) re-run of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In”.
Jeff Croteau is once again winning in the male lead as C.C. “Chuck” Baxter, a young accountant with ambition who finds he can rise rapidly through the ranks at his insurance agency employer by agreeing to allow his superiors to use his apartment as a trysting place for their extramarital affairs. His own love for Fran Kubelik (Gaelen Gilliland), a waitress in the executive dining room, goes unrequited. It turns out that she is deeply in love with the very married Personnel Manager J.D. Sheldrake (Stephen Bolte), who has traded Baxter the exclusive use of his apartment in return for a substantial raise.
Gilliland is adorable as Fran, but a trifle too composed. I suppose I am influenced by Shirley Maclaine’s performance in “The Apartment” but in order to make her eventual suicide attempt plausible, Fran Kubelik needs to show some emotional vulnerability in the earlier part of the show. However, it is very easy to see why Croteau’s Baxter would fall in love with Gilliland’s Fran – especially since she sings the wonderful songs Bacharach has given her character so effortlessly. It fell to Croteau and Gilliland sing the show’s big hit, “What Do You Get When You Fall In Love?” and they did it with grace and charm. That number is one of those felicitous moments in musical theatre where the music and lyrics match the mood and characters so perfectly that magic occurs.
Actually, matching music and lyrics to character and mood are what Bacharach and David do best. This is an intimate musical where most songs are solos or duets sung to extend dialogue or explore emotion, rather than to set toes a- tapping. There are two “big production numbers” but there is no grand finale at the end. If you are a big fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe, you may find Bacharach’s score jarring. Certainly a full evening of his syncopations which force David into sep-a-rate-ing ev-ery syl-a-ble is quite enough.
A comic highlight of the evening is the number “Where Can You Take a Girl” -perfectly performed by the male quartet of R.L. Schwartz, Bruce Williams, John Ayre, and Jimmy Johansmeyer as the frustrated executives left out in the cold when Baxter makes his exclusive deal with Shedlrake. Also hilarious in the character role of Baxter’s neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss is John Trainor.
Bottom line – this is a deligthful production of a charming and little-seen musical. I highly recommend it.
“Promises, Promise” runs through September 6 at the Theater Barn located on Route 20 in New Lebanon, NY. Call 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1998