While Matt Hetherington delivers a winning performance in the starring role of this eagerly anticipated production, the show itself and several creative aspects are somewhat below standard.
Based on Billy Wilder’s film The Apartment, the musical Promises, Promises attracted sterling creative talents. Neil Simon wrote the book and composers Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote their one and only Broadway score. Simon’s script contains his trademark witty wordplay and a sexual frankness that was relatively new on the stage in the 1960s. Bacharach’s music has a very distinct sound but when that sound is repeated through a dozen or so songs that all sound the same it becomes quite tedious. The couple of standout hits are a welcome relief from the otherwise indistinguishable score.
The show returned to prominence in 2010 with a hit Broadway revival inspired by the current penchant for the swinging ‘60s world of Mad Men, which brought pop culture full circle given that Matthew Weiner has described the influence of The Apartment on his creation. The story of Promises, Promises, with its executives seeking an apartment for casual sex and even mention of an LSD trip, proves a good match for the most recent season of Mad Men.
This version is based on the 2010 revival, and although it includes the hit song “I Say A Little Prayer,” added for the revival, it omits the gorgeous “A House Is Not A Home,” which was also added in 2010 to beef up the role of Fran for star Kristin Chenoweth. Still, at very close to three hours, any further music, however lovely, may have been too much.
Successful film director Nadia Tass seems to be somewhat out of her element directing for the music theatre stage. Comic moments are missed or handled poorly, transitions are far from smooth and overall an edge is missing from the blackness of the comedy. Maybe The Production Company has spoiled us this year with preview performances coming before the terrific opening nights of The Producers and Chess.
Tanya Mitford’s choreography is energetic, with the much-loved “Turkey Lurkey Time” a clear highlight of act one. Music Director Guy Simpson recreates the Bacharach sound, delivering stunning vocals from the ensemble.
The two levels of Andrew Bellchambers’ set design, also featuring a Frasier-inspired city skyline, work well. Ideally, he and Tass should have been able to solve more problems with the scene changes for this concert staging. The ongoing business with the mimed opening of doors should have been avoided somehow.
Martin Kinnane’s lighting design adds to the 60s vibe with a range of period colours but is overall not at the high standard expected here. The lack of illumination on the four girls singing back up for most numbers on the upper level needs to be corrected.
Costume Designer Isaac Lummis achieves wonderful looks for his two stars but overall, particularly with the ensemble, does not reach the heights he achieved in La Cage Aux Folles earlier this year. Some slick 60s pizazz, especially in the girls’ costumes, would have given the show a visual boost.
Chief achievement in Hetherington’s star turn as Chuck Baxter is his ability to play a meek, unnoticeable guy when he is, in fact, tall and handsome. On stage for almost the entire show, Hetherington is completely endearing, excelling at physical and verbal comedy, and singing the score with consummate ease.
Marina Prior looks divine, scoring by far the best of the costumes, and sings with reliable beauty and precision. Prior expertly balances the gently comic and emotionally lovelorn aspects of Fran Kubelik, although overall her heart did not seem to be in her performance on opening night. Hopefully Prior’s star wattage will return to its full luminescence as the season progresses.
Hetherington and Prior’s final duet “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” is a superb standout.
Playing the sleazy, self-serving bunch of philanders in pursuit of the key to Chuck’s apartment are a excellently talented quartet of redoubtable gentlemen of the stage. Anton Berezin, Mark Dickinson, Philip Gould and Barry Mitchell have a ball in these featured, but ultimately thankless, roles.
Robert Grubb exudes warmth, and lands many of the best comic lines, as Chuck’s kindly neighbor Dr Dreyfuss. Tony Cogin makes very little impression in the key role of Chuck’s womanizing boss J D Sheldrake.
Stealing the show out from under all of the above is the sensational Chelsea Plumley as flirtatious floozy Marge MacDougall, a role that won Best Featured Actress Tonys for its portrayers in 1969 and 2010. In a wig that seems a cross between Ann Margret and Madame Medusa from Disney’s The Rescuers, Plumley’s two scenes are a riot, with delicious, fully realised, physical comedy that adds a needed boost to the show in act two.
Ultimately, the chief attraction to the season is that the show is very rarely staged in Australia. Music theatre fans should take their chance to see Promises, Promises.
Photos: Simon Parris