Play: “Promises, Promises”
Group: Stages St. Louis
Venue: Robert Reim Theatre, Kirkwood Civic Center, 111 South Geyer Road
Dates: Through August 15
Tickets: $49; contact 314-821-2407 or www.stagesstlouis.org
Story: Chuck Baxter spends his lonely days toiling in anonymity at a mammoth insurance agency in New York City, circa 1968. While Chuck aspires to a loftier title than one of the sundry staff accountants on the company’s payroll, several executives there envy Chuck’s single status and, particularly, his apartment. Envisioning it as an ideal locale for their illicit assignations, they make arrangements with Chuck to use his pad in exchange for glowing recommendations about his work performance.
The shy Chuck has eyes for company cafeteria waitress Fran Kubelik, but unknown to him she is the mistress of personnel director J.D. Sheldrake. When Sheldrake gets wind of the availability of Chuck’s home for trysts, he pressures the young man into letting him use the site exclusively. When Chuck learns who Sheldrake’s mistress is, he must decide whether his moral outrage or career aspirations will win out.
Highlights: Based on the 1960 movie, “The Apartment,” by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond that starred Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray and won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, “Promises, Promises” features the magical combination of composer Burt Bacharach, lyricist Hal David and writer Neil Simon. It was the only Broadway collaboration of Bacharach and David, an enormously successful pop songwriting duo who made stars of Dionne Warwick, B.J. Thomas, The Carpenters and others with their melodious, catchy tunes in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Simon, of course, was already a hitmaker when “Promises, Promises” debuted in late 1968.
With such lofty pedigrees, “Promises, Promises” is an enjoyable and entertaining musical romp made all the more agreeable in this Stages St. Louis production by the marvelous work of Ben Nordstrom in the leading role of hapless hero Chuck. While Nordstrom’s singing is acceptable, it’s his genial knack for conveying the humanity of his various roles that always makes him most appealing. Here, he plays engagingly off the delightful Tari Kelly as the manipulated waitress Fran.
There are also two magnificent supporting performances that elevate the production. Richard Pruitt gets the best of Simon’s trademark wisecracks and one-liners and makes utmost use of each and every one of them in hilarious fashion as Chuck’s physician neighbor, who both disapproves and marvels at Chuck’s supposed romantic adventures. The real show-stealer, though, is Brandi Wooten, who embodies the best of physical humor as a tipsy babe Chuck meets at a bar on New Year’s Eve. As Marge McDougall, the leggy Wooten somehow maintains precarious balance on her high heels while slurring her attraction to Chuck in a truly uproarious scene that kicks off the second act in rousing style.
Other Info: While Bacharach and David brought a new type of music, the ‘pop’ form permeating radio airwaves, to the Broadway stage with “Promises, Promises,” the passage of time also indicates some of the show’s weaknesses. For example, many of the tunes in the first act are performed by solitary artists, limiting Dana Lewis’ appealing choreography to just a couple of ensemble numbers and also unfortunately emphasizing the emptiness of the stage in those solo bits. The show doesn’t really start generating momentum until Kelly’s fine work on the ballad, “Knowing When to Leave” two-thirds of the way into Act I.
Mark Halpin’s scenic design is an impressive array of shiny backdrop panels that, splashily illuminated by Michael McCarthy’s lighting, present a bright, explosive interpretation of the “Mad Men” time and place, all of which is nicely underscored by John Inchiostro’s costumes, including the short skirts adorning Wooten, Kelly and other women in the cast.
Michael Hamilton directs everything with a flair that allows Simon’s wit and the buoyant music of Bacharach and David to entertain the audience through the magic of his energetic cast, with the able assistance of musical director Lisa Campbell Albert and the lush orchestral design of Stuart Elmore.
Michael Halling does a good job with the villainous role of Sheldrake, although he looks too young for the Fred MacMurray role. Kari Ely brings her usual panache to the role of Sheldrake’s secretary and one-time lover, Peggy Olson, while John Flack, David Schmittou, Edward Juvier and Darrel Blackburn are amusing as the philandering corporate executives, frolicking their way through on the number, “Where Can You Take a Girl?”
Making light of adultery isn’t an easy matter, but with the considerable charms of Nordstrom, Kelly, Pruitt and Wooten et al and the appealing artistry of Bacharach, David and Simon it’s an entertaining enough evening.
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.