I've never been much of a fan of Promises, Promises, a revival of which opened last night at the Broadway Theatre. But I have to say I was intrigued and enticed by what at first seemed like shrewd semi-star casting: Kristin Chenoweth and Sean Hayes in the starring roles. Add in B-list hottie Tony Goldwyn in a significant supporting part, and I was one intrigued little theater blogger, let me tell you. Unfortunately, the Broadway production that I was most eagerly anticipating this spring has become the one I'm mostly likely to forget.
Except, that is, for the marvelous Katie Finneran, a Tony Award winner for Noises Off, and hopefully a repeat winner this year for her hysterical work here as the minor character Marge MacDougall. When Fineran comes on stage at the top of Act 2, suddenly this otherwise earthbound show takes momentary wing. When Finneran disappears shortly thereafter, the show returns to its desultory self.
The frequently marvelous Ms. Chenoweth is here sorely miscast. It really makes you wonder: Did she, or any of her people, actually read the script before they signed her on? Because Fran Kubelik, at least on paper, doesn't really seem to mesh well with Chenoweth's persona. Let's see, an introspective, easily dominated, suicidal schlub? Yeah, that's Kristen, all right.
Hayes comes off somewhat better than Chenoweth, far more natural here than he was as Mr. Applegate in the recent Encores production of Damn Yankees. At the top of the show, Hayes was charming and strong-voiced, but once the plot kicked in he had a tendency to overdo the comedy, pushing harder for laughs, milking the ones that actually came. It was as though he got the (accurate) sense that the show wasn't quite working and felt the need to overcompensate for the lackluster production surrounding him. And in act 2, both Hayes and Chenoweth showed signs of vocal strain.But it's really not fair to let the stars shoulder the blame here. And it's not that the story isn't strong, based as it is on Billy Wilder's masterful movie, "The Apartment." The characters are sweet and likable, and the libretto features Neil Simon at his jokemaster best. No, the main culprits are the lousy score and flat direction. I've always been a fan of Rob Ashford, mostly for his energetic and frequently humorous choreography. I had heard decent things about his directorial skills, based mostly on his well-received London and Los Angeles productions of Jason Robert Brown's Parade. But I have to say his directorial work here on Promises, Promises is less than impressive. As Terry Johnson so vividly demonstrates with La Cage aux Folles, insightful direction can make even mediocre material come alive. Ashford may indeed have a promising future as a Broadway director, but you'd never know it from watching Promises, Promises.
And then there's the score. Burt Bacharach's music features pretentious, self-conscious, pointlessly complicated changes in time signatures. And Hal David's lyrics are thoroughly unmemorable. After hearing the songs in context here, it's really no wonder to me that the pair haven't worked on Broadway again. Sure, there are a few moderately passable numbers, including "She Likes Basketball," and "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." (Although, on the latter, Ms. Chenoweth performs what is easily the least convincing fake guitar playing I've ever witnessed.)
But the rest of the score falls into three categories: dull, painful, and ridiculous. In the dull category we have the bland and pointless "Wanting Things." In the painful column, there's "Our Little Secret," "Where Can You Take a Girl?," and "You'll Think of Someone," all of them awkward, tuneless, and egregious in their rhythmic eccentricity. As for ridiculous...well, hello..."Turkey Lurkey Time"? Sure, the number was fun when Michael Bennett staged it in the '60s. (See it here on YouTube.) But Ashford's staging can't hold a candle to that of Bennett, and the song itself is a pointless trifle, both in and out of context.
As if the creative staff knew the score couldn't stand on its own, they've interpolated two Bacharach/David hits into the production: "I Say a Little Prayer" and "A House Is Not a Home." In terms of fitting the context of the show, the songs work just fine. But "Prayer" seems like a throwaway number here, and is lifelessly staged. And "House" serves a strong dramatic purpose in its current context, but is, to my ears, rather dull.
Theatergoers in search of an enjoyable, humorous, heartwarming recreation of an admittedly creaky show should definitely check out La Cage aux Folles. As for Promises, Promises? Meh, Meh.
Grade: C+ (Worth seeing for the delightful Katie Finneran. Otherwise, a somewhat joyless and obligatory affair.)