nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 28, 2010
The first thing we see in Promises, Promises is Sean Hayes as Chuck Baxter, office drone, working hard at his desk, center stage. (Nice applause for the star from the audience.)
The second thing we see is a man in a business suit, framed by lights in what at first appears to be a cubicle, executing choreography that is perhaps supposed to be wacky and Fosse-esque but that in fact is bizarre and off-putting. This dancer is soon joined by others doing the same weird step. Less than a minute into this new production of the 1968 musical comedy by Neil Simon, Burt Bacharach, and Hal David, I thought: we are in for trouble. (I was right.)
The thing is, it was Rob Ashford who had made me want to see this show—not Hayes, whose work on Will & Grace I confess I am not especially familiar with; not Kristin Chenoweth, who I enjoy but who I knew already wasn't going to be well-suited to this particular vehicle. Ashford's choreography of period pieces like Thoroughly Modern Millie, Cry-Baby, and The Wedding Singer was one of the very best components of those shows; it felt fresh and contemporary while honoring the milieu and story, with no ironic winking at the audience. Promises, Promises, which is based on the famous Billy Wilder film The Apartment and has a quintessential '60s feel thanks to its pop-inflected score and jokey book, seemed like it would be a great fit for Ashford's talents.
Alas, it apparently is not; this usually fine director-choreographer has gone badly astray here. This is a very ugly revival in just about every way: the dancing is mannerist and ungainly, the sets by Scott Pask are minimalist and bland and yet somehow often overpowering at the same time, the costumes by Bruce Pask are dull (although they have the occasional strange touches: why does the businessman played by Brooks Ashmanskas have on bright red socks?), and the lighting by Donald Holder is usually moodier and dimmer than a musical's ought to be.
Hayes, ingratiating and fitfully charming, is badly miscast here: his character, Chuck Baxter, is a guy who pimps out his apartment to executives at the company he works for in hopes of getting promoted. This is not a nice guy, nor is he a middle-aged guy; Hayes, 40, feels too mature, too charming, and too well-put-together to convince us that he's someone this callow and immoral. (For the record, he sings the songs genially and well, although a number that ought to be an exuberant highlight—"She Likes Basketball," in which he discovers that he has something in common with the girl he's had a crush on—feels more restrained than it could.)
Chenoweth plays Fran Kubelik, the cafeteria lady who is the mistress of the corporate bigwig who becomes Chuck's sole "client" and patron; she is also, needless to say, Chuck's love interest. Chenoweth acts the role plausibly enough (though, again, she seems much older and savvier than her character ought to be), but the Bacharach music is poorly suited to her talents and style. (The interpolated song "I Say a Little Prayer" is particularly unfortunate, with Chenoweth seeming to channel Dionne Warwick for no clear reason.)
Dick Latessa, who plays Chuck's neighbor, a doctor nearing retirement, is the only one in the company who is plugged into Neil Simon's rhythms and consequently the only one whose jokes always land. Ashford and his actors mostly miss the comedy; you may have heard that Katie Finneran is a hoot as a would-be one-night-stand whom Chuck meets in a bar, but her work has been grossly overrated in my opinion—it's easy to get laughs by playing vulgar and drunk, which is what she does here. In the process, one of the score's niftiest songs, "A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing," is essentially thrown away. (Listen to Marian Mercer and Jerry Orbach perform it on the original cast album to discover what you're missing.)
Misogynistic and cynical, Promises, Promises is a vestige of its time, no doubt about it; but it doesn't deserve a production as shoddy as this one. This is one of those revivals where every flaw of the original is magnified through mishandling and misunderstanding of the material. Why do producers keep letting this happen?