Any revival of “Promises, Promises” depends heavily on the performance — and energy level — of its leading man. In this respect the Goodspeed Opera House is blessed.
More in the Robert Morse than the Jerry Orbach mold, Evan Pappas (no relation to choreographer-director Ted Pappas, who has helmed this sharply astute production) is a wonderfully boyish Chuck, offering a clean-shaven, audience-wooing naivete that makes it difficult to believe he’s the same actor who, bearded, was so fine as far-from-naive Marvin in “Falsettos” at Hartford Stage in 1991.
The world has changed a lot since “Promises, Promises” opened on Broadway at the end of 1968. The intervening quarter-century has been kinder to Neil Simon’s book than to Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s score, so much so that this production plays less like a musical than a wickedly funny Simon play with songs that are, for the most part, expendable.
During the show’s first 20 minutes or so, it’s still possible to be turned off by its storyline of extramarital cheating and attempted suicide and to understand why some people, notably the New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson, found the musical “generally odious” and “The Apartment,” the 1960 film on which it’s based, “slightly odious.”
Yet without sugaring the mordant pill supplied by the film’s writers, director Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, Simon’s trenchant, insightful, comic dialogue ultimately overcomes the basic problem of a central character who in order to get ahead gives his apartment to his bosses for their middle-aged philandering.
The cast is, for the most part, made up of better actors than is often the Goodspeed case, which may be another reason why the book rather than the songs, though expertly played and sung, is dominant. The score has, in fact, become a mechanically bland period piece, its wordless vocalizing in the pit, a first in 1968, sounding more like heavenly choirs in old movies than something once thought startlingly new.
Adding significantly to the substance given to this revival by director Pappas and actor Pappas is P.J. Benjamin’s rueful, multidimensional performance of the ever-philandering personnel director.
As for Juliet Lambert’s potentially suicidal Fran, she’s highly likable and can sing beautifully, as well as strum a mean guitar in the one vaguely memorable song, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” She’s not, however, a match for Pappas or Benjamin as an actress.
Also first-rate, particularly in his comedy timing, is Joe Palmieri as a chubby, slyly deadpan Dr. Dreyfuss. And grasping every opportunity as the one-scene, scene-stealing character of a bar pickup is Marilyn Pasekoff, “owl feather” coat and all. Yes, she’s a hoot.
Then there are the rich contributions of Avery Saltzman, Michael Cone, John Deyle and Steve Pudenz as four aging, lusting executives who are never better than when acting-singing the quartet “Where Can You Take a Girl.”
The production’s ensemble also enriches this revival, which is, wisely, firmly set in the ’60s — wittily evident in the way Deborah Newhall’s costumes parody the hideous fashions of the period.
James Noone’s sharp-edged New York scenery, plus Kirk Bookman’s “office” lighting, follow through on the fulfilled promise of Ted Pappas’ direction. His choreography mercilessly sends up the period’s brainless bobbing, jerking and frugging.
Music director Michael O’Flaherty, orchestrators Keith Levenson and Andrew Wilder, and the brassy nine-piece pit ensemble including three female “orchestra voices” offer dedicated work suffused with nervous energy and rhythmic brio.
“Promises, Promises” isn’t a Broadway classic by any means, but it has prompted one of the best, least generic Goodspeed productions since “The Most Happy Fella” in 1991. Coming up next year at Goodspeed: “Kiss Me, Kate, “”Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and a musical yet to be chosen.