With songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, book by Neil Simon (based on a Billy Wilder cinematic classic), a 1281-performance Broadway run, and a recent B-way revival, you’d think 1968’s Promises, Promises would have merited at least one major L.A. staging in the last fifteen years. Grievously, it hasn’t, which is one big reason audiences were in for a treat at Musical Theatre Guild’s altogether groovy one-night-only concert staged reading .
Like Wilder’s 1960 Best Picture Oscar winner The Apartment, Promises, Promises follows an ambitious insurance company junior exec (Will Collyer) as he attempts to succeed at business without really trying, though unlike H2$’s J. Pierpont Finch, our hero Chuck Baxter discovers that the key to career advancement is the key to his convenient $86.50-a-month West Side apartment, loaned out nightly to higher-ups in need of a place to take a girl and “dance her around so fast, she starts to shout.”
Like Ponty Finch, Chuck too has his romantic sights set on a fellow employee, in this case the comely Fran Kubelik (Shannon Warne), who seems at best only vaguely interested despite Chuck’s frequent fantasizing to the contrary.
Unbeknownst to Chuck, Fran’s own sights have long been set on a band of gold that would bind her now and forever to her married boss J.D. Sheldrake (Kevin Symons), with whom she’s been carrying on a clandestine affair several nights a week, same time, same ($86.50-a-month West Side) place.
Despite occasional 1960s political incorrectness, Simon’s book stands up every bit as well as his much revived comedies of the same era, and though there may be slightly less misogyny in the business world in 2016, as long as there are middle-aged married execs, there will be middle-aged married execs who’d gladly take up a junior exec on the offer of a conveniently located pied-à-terre.
In other words period piece Promises, Promises may be, but it’s far from dated, and far too entertaining to have been consistently ignored by local regional theaters who’d rather give us yet another Tired Broadway Classic for the gazillionth time.
Add to this over a dozen Bacharach/David songs showcasing two of the most innovative talents of the ‘60s and you’ve got instantly catchy tunes, trademark syncopation, and bona fide story-telling, including Billboard 100 hits like the title song and “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again.”
With Richard Israel directing with accustomed imagination and flair (and MTG’s members and guest artists adding their triple-threat talents to the mix), even minus sets and with scripts in hand, Promises, Promises delivers … and then some.
There’s no more likable MTG leading man than Collyer, his Chuck earning our affection and sympathy from the first time he breaks the fourth wall (just one reason Simon’s book proves such a charmer), and Collyer’s vocal chops are as always off the charts.
MTG treasure Warne gives Fran enough of an edge to keep her from becoming just another girl next door, and like Collyer, boy can this leading lady sing.
Symons makes for a perfectly slimy Sheldrake, and despite a potentially humanizing (and beautifully sung) “Wanting Things,” the stage-and-screen favorites dares to play the serial philanderer as despicable as he is.
The always stunning Leslie Stevens takes a single extended sequence as a frisky barfly more than ready to stand in for Fran for an hour or so and makes it very much her own unforgettably ditzy creation.
Scott Harlan (as a sympathetic doc-next-door) and Kim Huber (as a still stinging Sheldrake ex) stand out in non-singing roles. though both Harlan and audiences are done a disservice by the needless cutting of Dr. Dreyfuss and Chuck’s “A Young Pretty Girl Like You.”
David Holmes, Tom G. McMahon, Glenn Rosenblum, and Scott Strauss provide delicious comic relief as four of the horniest execs ever to lust after women young enough to be their daughters (or maybe even their daughters’ daughters).
Katie DeShan (Ginger, Miss Polansky), Kelley Dorney (Sylvia, Miss Wong), Dana Meller (Miss Kreplinski), and Wendy Rosoff (Vivien Della Hoya) not only ace their office cameos but provide infectious onstage girl-group backup (revolutionary in a 1960s Broadway show).
Choreographer John Todd once again scores high marks, in particular for a lively, imaginative “Turkey Lurkey Time,” and ace musical director Jennifer Lin conducts a pitch-perfect onstage live band.
Costumes by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg and AJS Costumes give Promises, Promises a classy look, all but the leads clad in basic black, and colorful lighting choices help make up for an otherwise mostly bare set.
Eileen Barnett is production coordinator. Art Brickman is production stage manager. Leesa Freed is assistant stage manager.
Hope still springs eternal in this reviewer that Promises, Promises will soon be given the fully staged production it deserves. In the meantime, Musical Theatre Guild’s one-night-only concert staged reading proved the next best thing to seeing that wish come true.
Alex Theatre, Glendale.
September 25, 2106
Production Stills: Alan Weston