Theater Review: 'Promises, Promises' at the Broadway Theatre
NEW YORK — The “Mad Men” craze glorifying the pre-liberated 1960s — that last hurrah of an era in which privileged white men chased skirts while knocking back highballs and accepting promotions — finally hits Broadway with a revival of “Promises, Promises," the fashionably retro musical that opened Sunday at the Broadway Theatre.
The show, featuring a giggly book by Neil Simon and a groovy score by Burt Bacharach and Hal David that has been supplemented with a couple of the duo’s better-known hits, is hamstrung by some dodgy casting, but its stylish mix of nostalgia and parody will likely make you thirsty for a Tom Collins.
Rob Ashford (who directed the darkly stunning revival of "Parade" at the Mark Taper Forum last fall) directs and choreographs this randy spree of office shenanigans, based on "The Apartment," the 1960 Academy Award-winning Billy Wilder film starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth, two eminently appealing yet sorely mismatched actors, take on the roles of Chuck Baxter and Fran Kubelik, co-workers at a New York insurance company who are fumbling to find happiness through their jobs and making a mockery of their better principles in the process.
Apparently, the lady friends of the higher-ups find an apartment less disreputable than a hotel. But imagine Chuck’s surprise when he discovers that one of the mistresses rustling around in his sheets is the object of his heart’s desire. Yes, dopey, lovable Fran has fallen again for the sweet talk of Mr. Sheldrake (the sinisterly suave Tony Goldwyn), a married executive who’s stringing her along with the promise that he’ll soon be divorced. Chuck, who breaks the fourth wall every now and again to recap his dilemma with us, is stunned to learn that his professional advancement has come at the expense of his most cherished dream.
The farcical premise is shrewdly devised, but the leads’ lack of chemistry sets up formidable obstacles. This is a romantic comedy, and Chenoweth and Hayes’ characters seem little more than pals by the end of the show. Fran’s obliviousness to infatuated tongue-tied Chuck is part of the gag, but the erotic temperature between the performers never reaches the defrost mark.
Chenoweth, a diminutive musical theater dynamo, who pound for pound could blow anyone off the stage, simply isn’t right for Fran. Put some of the blame on her hair and makeup. Chenoweth’s coiffed radiance is all wrong for a woman who works in the executive dining room — costume designer Bruce Pask has her looking like she's heading to lunch with her Park Avenue cronies. It signals a deeper problem with her characterization: This Fran isn’t a naïve waif led astray by an adulterous operator but a mature woman manicured to the nines who can no longer chalk up her bad decisions to gaga innocence.
Hayes, a spry physical comedian, works hard to overcome the fey snappiness that made his Emmy-winning turn as Jack McFarland on “Will & Grace” such a TV favorite. Here he’s playing a hapless office drone, the kind of guy others mistake for a coat rack. An anxious eager beaver in slim suits, Hayes nails Chuck’s lonely outsider status, but he’s not as connected to his pent-up lust and longing.
There is one ensemble member, however, who is supremely right in every respect, the utterly hilarious Katie Finneran, who pops up in the second half for a couple of all-too-brief scenes as bar floozy Marge MacDougall and might as well collect her Tony for featured actress in a musical right now. Joining Chuck on a bender after he’s laid low by the news of Fran and Mr. Sheldrake, Marge has her own romantic woes to contend with. Decked in a coat she claims is owl, she flutters about the dingy establishment, a pigeon battered by heartache. Protesting that she’s no easy pickup, she empties her glass as soon as the bartender can refill it, cooing with inebriated pleasure whenever Chuck offers to buy another.
For as long as Finneran is onstage, the show belongs to her. But the production has other means at its disposal to keep an audience from growing impatient with the problems of the main story line.
Ashford’s choreography, with its bursts of workplace go-go erupting across Scott Pask’s giddy sets, keeps the show’s pulse racing. During the “Where Can You Take a Girl?” number — a song that could be retitled “The Secret Lives of Dogs” — four of the bosses jump up and down on desks to celebrate the pleasures of male prerogative. The '60s haven’t officially entered the swinging stage, but “Turkey Lurkey Time,” the Christmas party sequence, makes clear that inhibitions are only a punch bowl away from disappearing.
Simon’s one-liners are hoary but nonetheless induce chuckles. As the doctor who lives next door to Chuck and comes to the rescue when Fran falls apart, Dick Latessa is overloaded with Catskills zingers, but his method of soft-balling them in character is inspired.
Let's not underestimate star charisma either. With his dithering array of pratfalls, Hayes manages to hold the audience under his comic spell. He has a pleasant voice too, joining Chenoweth in “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again" — a sentiment, unfortunately, that's all too easy to believe in his character's case.
Few theatrical singers have the confidence, never mind the distinctive pipes, to make beloved Bacharach-David songs their own. Why Fran is breaking into “A House is Not A Home” is a mystery, but Chenoweth delivers it as enchantingly as she renders that other interpolated classic, “I Say a Little Prayer,” a more plausible addition, bouncily performed with secretarial pool backup.
“Promises, Promises” doesn't exactly fulfill them, but its compensations are so vivid that it's impossible to walk away feeling entirely cheated.
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Photos: Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth. Bottom: Hayes and Kate Finneran Credit: Joan Marcus/Associated Press.