Promises, Promises @ Broadway Theatre, New York

cast list
Cameron Adams, Ashley Amber, Helen Anker, Brooks Ashmanskas, Nathan Balser, Peter Benson, Wendi Bergamini, Kristin Chenoweth, Nikki Renee Daniels, Sarah Jane Everman, Katie Finneran, Tony Goldwyn, Sean Hayes, Sean Martin Hingston, Chelsea Krombach, Keith Kuhl, Ken Land, Dick Latessa, Matt Loehr, Mayumi Miguel, Brian O’Brien, Sarah O’Gleby, Adam Perry, Megan Sikora, Matt Wall, Ryan Watkinson, Kristen Bell Williams

directed by
Rob Ashford
It’s been over forty years since Promises, Promises, a musical adaptation of the film The Apartment, premiered on Broadway in 1968. Featuring tuneful, mostly forgettable songs by legendary pop composer Burt Bacharach and his go-to lyricist Hal David, as well as an occasionally titter-worthy book by playwright Neil Simon, the piece could hardly have seemed top-notch material upon its premiere; not much has changed.

Primarily, it’s a vehicle for its pair of stars. In its original production, Jerry Orbach took on the role of Chuck “C.C.” Baxter, a well-meaning life insurance employee on the rise opposite Jill O’Hara as company waitress Fran Kubelik, an unassuming doormat who eventually, at the end of her rope, comes into her own. Here, the same roles are played by Will and Grace‘s Sean Hayes and bite-sized Broadway diva Kristin Chenoweth, an amiable team who do their best to lift consistently average material up to the light.
Still, the battle is mostly uphill. Though Sean Hayes is full of charm as Chuck, using his bumbling sitcom-ready instincts to play up the physical comedy of the part, slinking hilariously onto a piece of plastic furniture in in one of the bigwig’s offices, Chenoweth, try though she may (and belt though she definitely does) can’t quite convince as our put-upon heroine. Thankfully, she sells the songs with aplomb, particularly the Bacharach-David hits I Say A Little Prayer and A House Is Not A Home, which have erroneously been added to this production, presumably for the sole purpose of showing off Chenoweth’s pipes.

But that’s just the problem here. Though Rob Ashford’s staging is colorful and agile, featuring some jaunty dance numbers for its eager cast, more consideration seems to have been given to the stars’ prerogatives to please an audience with their usual shticks than to the overall success of the piece.

The fact remains that Simon’s book is very much a product of its time (when apartments cost $86.50 a month), full of clunky, awkward jokes, and Bacharach and David’s score, though it features some dazzling songs, particularly You’ll Think Of Someone, Knowing When To Leave, Wanting Things, and the title song, fails to use music and words as plot devices, instead peppering songs throughout that halt the forward motion of the story rather than aiding it.

Katie Finneran manages to impress (and practically stop the show) as drunkard Marge MacDougall, a floozy Chuck meets in a bar after a rough holiday party at work, and Tony Goldwyn shows off a fine voice as J.D. Sheldrake, Chuck’s smooth-talking rival for Fran’s affections. Likable Broadway vet Dick Latessa, in perhaps the creakiest role, as Chuck’s doctor and neighbor, does his best with subpar material.

Overall, however, what makes this revival worthy of note is the chance to see Hayes work his comic magic (certainly an enjoyable sight) and Chenoweth’s extraordinary singing. Though it’s difficult to recommend Promises, Promises as a solid piece of musical theatre, it’s easy to recognize that these two make this production worth watching. Where the piece begins to fall apart, our two stars amiably juggle the remnants. It’s a precarious sight at times, teetering on the brink of exhaustion, but it can be fun, too, on occasion, to watch a talented cast have their way with less-than-brilliant material.

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