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Review: 'Back to Bacharach and David' at the Music Box @ Fonda

April 20, 2009 |  4:33 pm

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Pop music is the wallpaper of our lives. And the delicate floral patterns designed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David define the lovesick mood of a bygone easy-listening era.

Actually, the music never stopped, as the theatrical celebration “Back to Bacharach and David” makes clear. The show, which opened Sunday at the Music Box @ Fonda, keeps pulling out the timeless hits, like a magician yanking endless multicolored scarves from the same canister.

Inspired by the singular sultriness of Dionne Warwick, this songwriting team (Bacharach wrote the music, David the lyrics) proved remarkably adept at spinning out catchy melodies for moony sentiments about desire and dissatisfaction. Beyond the insinuating music, what distinguished the duo's method was the suggestion of the same lonely ache before ("Wishin' and Hopin' "), after ('Walk on By") and during ("I Say a Little Prayer") love.

Thisoneplease The production — created by Steve Gunderson, who did the musical and vocal arrangements as well as the orchestrations, and actress Kathy Najimy, who also directed — is still in its warm-up phase when “You’ll Never Get to Heaven” and “Trains and Boats and Planes” waft by. This embarrassment of catalog riches is the main draw of this sprightly homage, which is lightly shaped into tongue-in-chic vignettes, many of them performed in the groovy garb of the hippie era.

Pulsating with an onstage band led by musical director Ben Toth and genially choreographed by Javier Velasco, the show is less a jukebox musical than a goosey cabaret. A talented foursome approaches the music in a whimsical vein, never allowing reverence to grow even remotely clammy — always a risk for material in which romance is the alpha and the omega.

Diana DeGarmo, a runner-up on the third season of “American Idol,” maintains a loopy go-go air as she sings her heart out. Tressa Thomas, who possesses the juiciest voice in the group, seems content to snatch spotlighted moments without milking anything. Tom Lowe, another “American Idol” alum, and Susan Mosher, who was part of the show’s original off-Broadway company, are content to hit all the right notes while playing the cut-ups.
Images are projected onto a hanging screen not so much to illustrate lyrics as establish the right ambience — a close-up of a flower, a civil rights rally and (for “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”) a poetic drizzle. Issues of gay and lesbian equality are highlighted in the running stream of progressive causes that flash by us, but like the show as a whole, there’s nothing overbearing in the well-blended design.

Truth be told, “Back to Bacharach and David” threatens to underwhelm by its casual grace. The problem might be the quality of the amplification, which doesn’t allow for an intimate connection with the different voices. The room at the Music Box @ Fonda, which at the orchestra level is set up as a nightclub with little round tables and a circulating wait-staff ready to take your drink orders, is spacious, and the sound system doesn’t invite personal exploration of these oft-interpreted songs.

In other words, don’t go in expecting to hear Warwick’s vintage version of “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” or Karen Carpenter’s patented “Close to You.” The renditions here are far more generalized, a group effort whose personality is collective rather than individual.
But with such a gold mine of music, you couldn’t go wrong if you stood on your head and sang these classics. And this capable quartet offers a tribute that is in the mellow spirit of the unbelievably rich Bacharach-David tradition.

--Charles McNulty

"Back to Bacharach and David," The Music Box @ Fonda, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends May 17. Tickets: $25-$100.  (800) 514-3849 or Running time 1 hour, 10 minutes. 

Photo: Top: Diana DeGarmo, left, Tressa Thomas and Susan Mosher. Bottom: Thomas, left, Tom Lowe, DeGarmo and Mosher. Credit:  Ann Johansson / For The Times