Retro Without Irony

Photo: Joan Marcus

T hanks to Mad Men fever, the time is right for a revival of Neil Simon, Burt Bacharach, and Hal David’s 1968 musical Promises, Promises, itself based on Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment. But there’s nothing opportunistic about this production, directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford: He and his cast revel in the show’s modest but potent charms instead of attacking the material with superior everything-was-so-corny-back-then winks and nudges. It treats Bacharach’s melodies as the buoyant, intricate structures that they are, not just weird curios from another age. Set in 1962 Manhattan, the show is pleasingly retro without being a kitsch comic book: Even its Eames-a-go-go sets (by Scott Pask), as colorful and fun as they are, speak more of cocktail-cabinet sophistication than yard-sale tackiness.

The same goes for the performances. Sean Hayes is Chuck Baxter, a low-level office zhlub who climbs the corporate ladder by letting the higher-ups—including the grandest of the grand fromages, Mr. Sheldrake (Tony Goldwyn)—borrow his modest bachelor pad for their extramarital assignations. Little does he know that the girl of his dreams, the in-house-cafeteria worker Fran Kubelik (Kristin Chenoweth), is Sheldrake’s latest conquest. Hayes brings the right amount of knock-kneed savoir faire to the role, and he pulls off a number of physical gags (including an encounter with a strangely obscene-looking molded fiberglass chair) with rubbery-limbed grace: It appears he’s been studying the genius of Donald O’Connor. He also makes a grand foil for Katie Finneran’s hootingly funny Marge MacDougall, the floozy poor Chuck picks up in a bar on Christmas Eve. (Her furry, outsized bolero, which she assures Chuck is made of genuine owl, is practically a character unto itself.)

Chenoweth wouldn’t seem to be the right choice to play Fran. A pint-size dynamo in tippy-tap stilettos and a flaxen-blond pageboy, she comes off as a triple-threat cross between Eartha Kitt, Angie Dickinson, and Dolly Parton, all of them dames to be reckoned with. She conveys pep and feistiness, not the vulnerability her character needs: When she launches into “I Say a Little Prayer” (one of two Bacharach-David songs that didn’t appear in the original show but were added to this production), she bites into the lyrics with too much gusto—it’s a buoyant, reflective number that needs to be approached with some delicacy.

But her ability and conviction must not be underestimated: By the show’s end, Chenoweth has willed us into believing in Miss Kubelik’s fragility, dammit, and the illusion is just enough. When she and Chuck settle down on his sofa for a game of gin rummy, and she utters the show’s double-edged closing line—”Now shut up and deal”—we’re willing to buy this hi-fi version of urban domestic bliss. That’s a promise fulfilled, not broken.

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Retro Without Irony