Revivals of classic musicals come in waves, and it takes a surefooted
artistic director like Merry-Go-Round’s Ed Sayles to get on the right
side of that curve. A handful of shows, such as West Side Story, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music,
can always find a ready audience. Many more lie dormant until a
fashionable Broadway revival gives them the kind of buzz that makes
lots of people want to see them again, like Show Boat, Chicago, and more recently, A Little Night Music. So when Kristen Chenoweth and Sean Hayes ushered in the smash revival of Promises, Promises,
Burt Bacharach’s only Broadway hit, in April, it was sure to spark
hundreds of regional productions. Only MGR’s Sayles announced his
production last year, long before the spring hoopla.
A blockbuster hit that amassed 1,281 performances after its late 1968 opening, Promises, Promises is
a trifle astringent for middle American tastes. It’s an adaptation of
filmmakers Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s dark romantic comedy, The Apartment (1960).
In it a semi-talented and lowly lug nut at Consolidated Life Insurance,
Chuck Baxter, seeks to rise in corporate machinery by offering his
shabby digs for assignations between middle-aged married executives and
somewhat desperate and exploitable office women. He slowly faces up to
the moral cost of this arrangement to the women, especially one woman,
and to himself. Worse, he finds that this Faustian pact is not paying
much of a dividend.
Anyone who’s paid any attention to pre-rap popular music knows
something about Burt Bacharach and probably associates him with
memorable tunes like “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” from the 1969
movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He was a Brill
Building regular (along with the likes of Carole King), where he teamed
up with lyricist Hal David. At the same time, having studied with
several classical composers, like Darius Milhaud, his music, upon
investigation, turns out to be highly sophisticated with unusual chord
progressions, striking syncopated rhythmic patterns, irregular phrasing
and odd, changing meters. All of these are present in the show’s title
song, “Promises, Promises,” which for all its charm is not something
we’re all going to sing around the piano at a party. Then again, the
show also includes the bittersweet “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,”
which has had a long life on its own.
The third element in the show is Neil Simon, at the height of his
fame in 1968. Simon’s book softens much of the movie’s hard edge and
provides some pretty terrific gags, many of them with ethnic flavor.
Lastly, Promises, Promises is a major dance show in the evolution of choreographer Michael Bennett, who seven yeas later would bring us A Chorus Line. Many of the stars of that show were in the chorus of Promises, Promises, including
Donna McKechnie, Baayork Lee and Margo Sappington. You can feel their
nascent energy breaking loose in the big, Christmas party dance number,
“Turkey Lurkey Time,” that closes the first act. Credit choreographer
Lori Leshner here especially.
We see all the action through Chuck Baxter’s eyes, which means that
actor Danny Gardner does most of the heavy lifting in the first act,
with four solos and two duets. Gardner banishes any thought of Jack
Lemmon in this role; instead a kind of wistful loser who fantasizes
about what he can’t get, he often imagines flattering and submissive
responses from his dream girl, Fran Kubelik (Stacie Bono), a Simon
device not found in the film. Gardner’s Baxter is more of an anti-hero,
winning our empathy although he is neither admirable nor strong. His
delivery of the difficult title song, “Promises, Promises,” is winning
in another way. The fuller meaning of Hal David’s lyrics comes in the
The role of Fran is not developed much in the first act, but Bono is
called on for heavy-duty acting skills in the second act, as well as
the crisp delivery of the show’s bitterly ironic last line. More of the
second act of the weighty book rests with her. Bono’s top moment comes
in leading the duet in the most memorable and heartbreaking song, “I’ll
Never Fall in Love Again.”
Different from the film also is that the top executive, J.D.
Sheldrake (Scott Willis), is allowed a sympathetic voice of his own
with the solo “Wanting Things.” Call it depth of characterization, of
sympathy for adulterers. He learns of Chuck’s crash pad from underlings
and asks to use it in order to bed Fran (yikes, we could have guessed
it). So we cheer when his secretary, Miss Olson (Kristen Gehling), a
dumped mistress, turns the tables on him and we gasp when he then turns
The great musical innovation of the first act is the upbeat quartet,
“Where Can You Take a Girl,” from the four cheating lower executives,
Dobitch (Geno Carr), Eichelberger (Kevin Shumway), Kirkeby (John T.
McAvaney) and Vanderhof (Martin C. Hurt). Strange, we’re supposed to
hate these guys as double-exploiters, but with this kind of Gilbert and
Sullivan patter, and the efforts of director Paul David Bryant and
music director Mark Goodman, we find ourselves laughing with them.
Two supporting characters emerge in the second act, both of them
scene-stealers. The first is a barfly-pickup of a certain age, Marge
MacDougall (Joyce Nolen), who dramatically is a kind of a parody of the
romantic and sexual needfulness of both Chuck and the cheating
executives. After her duet with Chuck, “A Fact Can Be a Beautiful
Thing,” you’d think we’d be horrified by her and that Chuck would want
to flee from her, but the reverse turns out to be true. Her desperation
is paradoxically mesmerizing and hilarious.
More clearly a product of Neil Simon’s hand is Chuck’s neighbor Dr.
Dreyfuss (Anthony Santelmo Jr.), who grows from being a nosey nuisance
to become a benefactor when Fran reacts disastrously to Sheldrake’s
treachery. Some of his gags may not look like much on the page, like
comparing an LSD trip to two weeks in Miami Beach, but Santelmo presses
them to the max.
Like other shows based on movies, Promises, Promises calls
for rapid set changes of ornate scenery. Another company might have
done it impressionistically, but director Bryant, together with
artistic director Ed Sayles and scenic designer Czerton Lim, have come
up with authentic-looking office space, restaurants and that apartment,
all of which look like the real thing and move in a snap.
Save your plane fare and that $250 Broadway admission ticket and stay home for Promises, Promises. Once again, Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse is ahead of the game.
This production runs through July 28. See Times Table for information.