For years it seemed like it was only promises and more promises for the 1968 musical “Promises, Promises” with a score by Burt Bacharach (music) and Hal David (lyrics). A well-received staged-concert version in 1997, part of the City Center Encore Series, suggested that Broadway was ready for a full-scale revival. The good news is that the collaborators of this new production have made good on the promises and delivered the goods we’ve been waiting for. After 13 years, a slick and polished revival has finally made it to Broadway with a personable, attractive, talented, and hard-working cast in the hands of director-choreographer Rob Ashford.
What a joy it is as framed in scenic designer Scott Pask’s cool and sleek settings. How exactly do you capture the finer qualities of a show that was once deemed timely and titillating, but would in a changed world be viewed as irretrievably dated and also possibly disingenuously quaint? The answer is to play it straight, but playfully and most of all, play it for all its worth — and that’s worth plenty.
The resolutely adorable Kristin Chenoweth and an irrepressibly personable Sean Hayes (making his Broadway debut) gleefully lead the entire company through this unconscionably disarming tribute to the kind of deplorable sexual shenanigans in the workplace that were destined to spark a social revolution. Some may feel that the plot’s frequent displays of immature hedonism grow a bit tiresome, and that may be true. But I say, get over it.
Once upon a time the workplace was an uncontested playground for philandering husbands and those apparently available secretaries who composer Frank Loesser had labeled “toys” in his 1961 musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” There is, in fact, more than one similarity between the two musicals. Both involve the rapid rise through the ranks of the corporate world by an otherwise unassuming young male employee.
In “Promises, Promises,” a nebbishy bachelor, Chuck Baxter (Sean Hayes), gains favor with company executives by permitting them to use his $86.50 a month New York apartment for their extracurricular dalliances in return for a boost up the corporate ladder. Life and love get complicated for Chuck when he discovers that Fran Kubelik (Kristin Chenoweth), the young woman who works in the company cafeteria and with whom he is secretly infatuated, is also the mistress of J.D. Sheldrake (Tony Goldwyn), his married boss, to whom he has also given the key to his apartment.
There was a real and prescient indication in 1968 that “Promises, Promises” would be leading the way into a new era of pop musical theater. The highly successful pop composer Burt Bacharach with lyricist Hal David made a notable impact with their hip, flippant, and swinging score for this musical version of Billy Wilder’s hit 1960 film “The Apartment.” The show also boasts a smart and funny book by Neil Simon that feeds upon the prevailing sexual codes and presumably progressive mores of the 1960s. That Simon’s lines have retained their glib and laugh-inducing sparkle is also a tribute to the players. Hayes, in particular, makes virtually every one of his line resonate with meanings and inferences that I imagine even Mr. Simon hadn’t thought of.
Hayes, who is most famously known for his role on the hit TV series “Will & Grace,” made theatergoers take notice of him in New York City Center’s “Damn Yankees.” Forgive me for gushing, but I can’t think of another musical comedy performance this season more genuinely engaging and generously comical than the one given by Hayes.
The show opens with an indication of how easily and effortlessly Hayes controls a scene. You won’t take your eyes off of him in this brief but brilliantly executed prologue in which he sits unnoticed at his office desk eating a sandwich while the other employees (male and female dancers) are making whoopee on, over, and under the furniture including the coat hangers. Throughout the show, Hayes also has the audience eating out of his hands with the script’s endearingly personal asides to the audience.
If the petite Chenoweth is known for her vocal prowess as much as for her beguiling luminescence, I have to admit that she doesn’t have many opportunities for expressing more than her disillusionment with her romance with the rake Sheldrake. She does her best, however, to keep up with Hayes’s razor-sharpened theatricality. She sings like a dream, not only the folksy “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” but also two popular Bacharach songs: “I Say a Little Prayer,” and, newly added to this production, “A House Is Not a Home.”
Katie Finneran makes the most of the sure-fire role of Marge, the sloshed and seducible woman who Chuck picks up in a seedy bar and takes home. Draped in what she calls her “owl” furs, Finneran is hilarious as this revival’s designated show-stopper. She earns the audience’s most rapturous approval. If the audience isn’t likely to take kindly to the reprehensible behavior of J.D. Sheldrake, you can blame it on the very believable performance by Tony Goldwyn.
It is musical theater’s loss that Bacharach and David didn’t follow up their Broadway success with another and that their singular contribution, “Promises, Promises,” unlike other musical hits, somehow slipped out of sight and largely out of mind for many years. Those of us who saw the original can remember the excitement generated along the Rialto by the new sound and rhythms that were Bacharach’s musical signature. The title song was a huge hit for songstress Dionne Warwick. Hayes now nails it big time.
It is great to report that the dancing, especially by the men augmenting the “She Likes Basketball” number, is refreshingly and robustly reconsidered by Ashford (the show was originally choreographed by the up and coming genius Michael Bennett). And what a raucous “Turkey Lurkey Time” is had by the shapeliest of employees and their ardent male pursuers dressed in their business suits no less.
Some musicals were once custom tailored to please the tired business man. Just think how far we have come in 40 years: This splendid comically-driven revival will surely appeal just as much to all the tired business women who are also in need of an office break. ***
“Promises, Promises,” Broadway Theater, 1681 Broadway at 53rd Street. $56.50 to $136.50. 212-239-6200.