Promises Not Delivered!

promises-promises-broadwayPromises, Promises

I was in college when the original Promises, Promises played on Broadway. It was 1968, and the musical featured a score by the noted pop team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, with a book by Neil Simon, based on Billy Wilde's Oscar winning movie The Apartment, which starred Jack Lemmon. The score marked another example of the infusion of pop music into Broadway scores, and Promises, Promises proved to be a big hit, running for over two years. It wasn't a great musical, but it was highly enjoyable, and Broadway legend Jerry Orbach won a well-deserved Tony for his performance in the leading role.

Other than a weekend production as part of the Encores series, there have been no Promises, Promises Broadway revivals until now. Many people have speculated that Promises was too dated to be revived, with its '60s mindset regarding women in the workplace. But with Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth and TV star Sean Hayes (Will and Grace) in the leads, and with the TV series Mad Men successfully recreating that same '60s mentality, Promises is back.

I don't necessarily think that Promises is too dated to work today. But while watching the first act recently, I kept waiting for a spark and a surge of energy. I was enjoying Sean Hayes and his charming, totally convincing and winning performance, and there were a few good moments. But overall, Promises seemed stodgy and only modestly entertaining. There was nothing that came close to thrilling or exciting.

Things improved considerably in Act Two; it starts with a wonderful scene between the hilarious, scene-stealing Katie Finnerman and Hayes; the always delightful Dick Latessa has his funny moments later on as a doctor who is Hayes' neighbor, and the big payoff comes with the beguiling "ll Never Fall In Love Again," one of the hit songs from the show, and the one moment that borders on having some emotion. The musical closes on a satisfying note and now includes a brief reprise of the previously mentioned hit song.

Hayes makes a strong Broadway debut. He had shown his stage talents with a fine turn as the Devil in Damn Yankees when it was presented at Encores a couple of summers back. In Promises, Promises he must carry the show as the leading man, and he does that well. He has a pleasant singing voice, although he lacks the forcefulness and power that Orbach brought to a few songs, including the title song. But Hayes' comic timing and instincts are perfect, and he has the right persona for his role as Chuck Baxter, mixing charm, vulnerability, self-doubts, and a sense of humor. Hayes has some inspired moments -- watch him as he tries to navigate a chair early in the show, or how he brings a new dimension to the song "Our Little Secret." The audience loves him, and he was deserving of the Tony nomination he recently was awarded for his performance. There is no hint of his more flamboyant Will and Grace character, and Hayes shows he can successfully play the Broadway leading man.

I have always been a Kristin Chenoweth fan, but unfortunately she is miscast as Fran. The role, played by Shirley MacLaine in the movie and Jill O'Hara in the original musical, does not play into Kristin's comic strengths or her soprano voice. To her credit, she does not try to inappropriately insert those elements into the character. While she is always a welcome stage presence, she lacks the needed fragility for Fran, and her voice is not suited for Fran's songs.

The issues with this production are not limited to Kristin. Director/choreographer Rob Ashford has done admirable work in the past, but he must take some of the blame for the lackluster first act. He has choreographed a good opening section, danced around Hayes at his desk while the overture plays, and there is a clever section in "She Likes Basketball," but "Turkey Lurkey Time," a famous number choreographed by Michael Bennett in the original (it can be found on YouTube), is uninspired. Neil Simon's book has its funny scenes, but the overall wit is not as consistent as I recalled, and there certainly are dated aspects to this musical, although they could be overcome in a better production. The huge stage really is too big for this show, and the generic set that is particularly present in Act One is bland. The score, while cheerful and enjoyable, has always had its share of less-than-perfect songs; the revival has incorporated two hit Bacharach songs for Chenoweth, "I Say a Little Prayer" and "A House Is Not a Home." I enjoyed the latter addition (which Chenoweth also recently sang on the TV show Glee), but "Prayer" did not particularly work within the context of the show.

Promises, Promises is a mixed bag. Hayes is a total delight, there are some legitimately funny scenes, and Act Two is effective. But this version doesn't soar. Is it because the material is problematic, or is it the production? I would say it is a little of each. While there are definitely enjoyable and entertaining scenes, more was hoped for and expected from this Promises, Promises. - James Miller

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Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.

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