Many virtues of the acting, singing, instrumental playing and smooth creative direction make Promises, Promises a solid evening out; but you still leave the theatre with a sense of disappointment rather than fulfilment, and that resides largely with the intractable nature of the piece itself.
I think part of what made me a comedy writer is the blocking out of some of the really ugly, painful things in my childhood and covering it up with a humorous attitude.
These words, cited by director Bronagh Lagan in her programme note, sum up both the opportunity and the challenge of this musical adaptation of The Apartment, which most of us know as a famous Billy Wilder film that played a central role in making the careers of both Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine, and established Neil Simon as a master of mordant comic satire. Yes, there has to be a continuous froth of comedy if the evening is to succeed, but bubbling over an altogether darker mixture of ingredients: it really cannot work without both together. The problem with this musical adaptation is that this necessary tension is only intermittently maintained across its long span of over two and half hours of scenes and numbers.
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Promises, Promises has had an uneven history: very popular in its initial 1968 run, it was revived again on Broadway in 2010 (with a superlative cast), but it has not been seen in London nearly so often. Nor is the material itself entirely consistent: some famous Bacharach numbers have come and gone in its various outings, not all of them really in sync with the mood and tone of the point in the action where they fall. These facts point to two problems.
The first is an issue of genre: the original book is fiercely satirical and aggressively critical of the commercial world and sexual politics of the 1960s, but this leaches away in the musical treatment where the numbers and dialogue tend to celebrate the ‘Swinging Sixties’ without nuance or caveat and the multiple levels of exploitation and inauthentic emotion are smudged and blurred by comic business and bouncy levity. It need not be so.
It is not automatically the case that musical treatment broadens and softens the original tone and treatment. It depends entirely on how it is done. If the songs develop and refine an emotion or sentiment already introduced into the dialogue of the preceding scene, then just as in the relationship between recitative and aria in opera, the music emerges as a natural progression from the words. Then there is a lot of raw material for the singer-actor to work with to create a complete characterisation. It can be done as both satire and drama, as for example Sondheim achieves so well in Merrily We Roll Along, much of which is set in the 1960s too.
However, here the dialogue seems self-contained, the songs appear as interruptions rather than development of the action, and the music itself for all its harmonic sophistication and stylishness, is not precisely attuned to the moment, but generalised and lacking development in mood and tone within the song itself.
As a result, and despite the heroic efforts of the cast, this often seems like a long evening.
This then is the second problem – an awkward fit between style of words and music that fight rather than readily complement each other.
The exception that proves the rule is in the first few numbers of the second half when the rapid flurry of darkening events and the emergence of some other and deeper characters who contrast with the lubricious executives and vapid secretaries of the first act suddenly sharpens the focus of all contributing elements. Goodness knows, these are difficult elements to get right – one only has to look at the chequered history of Candide to see how hard it is to translate satire into a compelling and plausible evening of musical theatre. But this show regularly misses its target unfortunately, and therefore comes over as much more simply dated and sexist than it needs to.
The production values too are a source of both strength and weakness. The Southwark Playhouse has deservedly developed a high reputation for professionalism and attention to detail in a huge variety of neglected musicals, and there is no faulting the creative team’s recreation of the costumes, sets and vibes of the period. It is doubtful that the forthcoming film, Jackie, will be any more authentic in manipulating the iconic images of the age. But that leaves some embarrassing holes that the choice of a modern or simply different period setting might have more successfully disguised.
Most audiences will cut some historical slack if a piece – like Breakfast at Tiffany’s – has off-beat, kooky charm as a distraction. But here there is too unrelieved a diet of salivating, over-weight executives celebrating their libidos with female juniors denied all personality or opportunity to talk – or sing – back. This is why is it such a joy when finally one does in the form of bar pick-up Marge (Alex Young), who together with Dr Dreyfuss (John Guerrasio) brings the second half and the hero back to life single-handedly.
A lot rests on the shoulders of Gabriel Vick who plays anti-hero Chuck Baxter. As well as playing himself plausibly, without seeming to be the worm who never turns, he is also confidante and guide for the audience and interpreter of the other characters. He acts and sings with confidence and charm and really grows into the role in the second half, finding a confidence and maturity that is very engaging. He is a real talent to watch.
His opposite number, Daisy Maywood, as Fran Kubelik, does not find the same gamine odd-ball charm in the role that made Maclaine so watchable in the film: instead she is more wan and down-trodden and dispirited than she should be, and that rather undermines interest in their potential relationship. However, she sings very well and makes the most of her scenes with her exploitative boss, Sheldrake (Paul Robinson). He in turn does his best with a most unsympathetic, two-dimensional part.
Among the smaller roles IN Promises, Promises, the stand-outs are Young and Guerrasio, and Natalie Moore as Miss Olson the vengeful secretary; but everyone sings and dances with gusto, and does a fine job of moving the props and scenery around between scenes with seamless expedition.
Musical director Joe Louis Robinson leads his band incisively through this long score and when given their collective head the players kick up enough of a storm to make you wish there were more such interludes and fewer songs.
These clearly negative about this current production of Promises, Promises comments should not detract overmuch from the many virtues of the acting, singing, instrumental playing and smooth creative direction that make this show a solid evening out; but you still leave the theatre with a sense of disappointment rather than fulfilment, and that resides largely with the intractable nature of the piece itself.