Review : Promises, Promises

Originally reviewed for

When they are confidently in their element, the stars of Promises, Promises can shine pretty brightly. When Sean Hayes is called to do breezy, light comedy, he excels. Give Kristen Chenoweth a number, ballad or up-tempo, that she can belt to the back wall, and she’s as delighted as she is delightful. Both are given plenty of opportunities to use their respective gifts, a fact that keeps the evening buoyed up.

Unfortunately, though, Promises, Promises features many shifts in tone and focus, and there are many times when these great talents appear a bit at sea. Many of those shifts in tone can be chalked up to the weird combination of authors involved. Jokester Neil Simon seems uncomfortable adapting Billy Wilder’s worldly screenplay for The Apartment to the musical theatre. And then we have the brilliant lyric writer Hal David, wittier than either of them, but also more deeply humane. That’s a set of sensibilities shooting in all sorts of contradictory directions.

Hayes, as Consolidated Life Insurance Company employee Chuck Baxter, is fine as long as he gets to play Baxter’s leering charm or rueful cynicism (in an effort to advance his career, Chuck lends executives his apartment for their adulterous trysts). He doesn’t land the thrilling title number, however, somehow missing its big, joyful, even redemptive dimensions, going right for aw-shucks lightness.

Chenoweth, as Chuck’s deeply conflicted love interest Fran Kubelik is more successful, landing every number she’s given and nimbly navigating all those odd shifts. Problem is, in the interest of beefing up Fran’s part, for this revival she’s handed a couple of songs that make precious little sense. She sings and acts the hell out of them, but there’s only so much she can do.

Katie Finneran is given the much easier task of milking comic floozy Madge for all she’s worth. Finneran (queen of immaculate comic timing) couldn’t be better cast, and her performance is the happiest marriage of performer and role in the show.

It’s not that Promises, Promises is hopeless. The gorgeous score by David and pop composer Burt Bacharach is worth the price of admission, and in the right hands, those shifts in tone could be made into the theatrical equivalent of a thrill ride. But that didn’t happen here, and I’m not altogether sure why: director/choreographer Rob Ashford is one sharp cookie. I’m flabbergasted.

For tickets, click here.

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