Review: ‘Promises, Promises’

Reprise! Broadway's Best in Concert has hit upon the perfect setup for L.A. theater. Instead of planning a two-month run of a play only to lose your lead actor to a "better" job (e.g., a commercial), this series signs up a bunch of name thesps for two weeks of rehearsal and one week of performances; it even lets them carry their scripts onstage.

Reprise! Broadway’s Best in Concert has hit upon the perfect setup for L.A. theater. Instead of planning a two-month run of a play only to lose your lead actor to a “better” job (e.g., a commercial), this series signs up a bunch of name thesps for two weeks of rehearsal and one week of performances; it even lets them carry their scripts onstage. Call it Short Attention Span Theater for Actors. But surprisingly, with its inaugural production of “Promises, Promises” in the sure hands of star Jason Alexander and director Stuart Ross, Reprise! is a hit.

It’s a minimalist experience, to be sure, especially for theatergoers more accustomed to the scenic extravaganzas of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. The orchestra (led by musical director Peter Matz) sits on a platform in the middle of the stage. There’s no scenery and only basic props; actors get one costume apiece. However, Adam Shankman jazzes things up with some fun choreography, and those scripts in the actors’ hands are easy to get used to (especially when they set them aside to sing). This unusual approach focuses attention on the acting, which is superb, and on the show itself, which, although dated, holds up well enough under the scrutiny.

Based on the hit film “The Apartment,” “Promises, Promises” is a “How to Succeed in Business”-type tale about ambitious young accountant Chuck (Alexander), who finds the easiest way to climb the corporate ladder is to lend his apartment to the higher-ups for assignations. For instance, he explains, he lends it to “Mr. Kirkeby in public relations, which means every Wednesday night I’m sitting out in public while he’s upstairs having relations.”Eventually Chuck wins his promotion, but he must cut everyone out of the apartment loop except for personnel manager Sheldrake (Alan Thicke at his smarmy best), who’s having an affair with Miss Kubelik (the charming Karen Fineman), the object of Chuck’s unrequited affections. When Chuck realizes who’s involved, his conscience starts to bother him.

With its chorus of philandering businessmen (Charlie Robinson, Alan Rachins, Fred Willard and Paul Kreppel, all terrif in the hilarious number “Where Can You Take a Girl”) counterpointing a trio of dancing chorus girls (Jill Matson, Kristie Canavan, Anne Fletcher) in miniskirts and go-go boots, this production has a fresh enough take on the 1968 musical’s old-fashioned, sexist attitudes to make them palatable.

It also provides the opportunity to hear anew what was in its time a groundbreaking Broadway show, unusual in its musical style and untraditional sound (how many shows have tunes about basketball?). Matz’s sensitive musical direction even puts a fresh spin on chestnut “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” which, far from being the familiar sappy ballad, is a bitter but clever song, with lyrics clearly enunciated by Fineman and Alexander.

Director Ross keeps action pacy and comes up with some sterling business, especially in the number “A Young Pretty Girl Like You,” in which Alexander’s tumbling is abetted by Barney Martin’s grumping (he’s great as the crotchety doctor next door).

Besides Fineman, a sympathetic and winning songstress, other standouts in the cast are Jean Smart, whose innuendo-trading with Alexander kicks off the second act, and Linda Hart as sassy secretary Miss Olson, who sees it as her duty to warn single girls about her married boss, Sheldrake.

But this is Alexander’s show. He kibitzes with the audience; he frets and bumbles and charms. He’s a triple-threat with a few additional skills thrown in, and he gives a winning performance in a role that fits him like a glove.

Upcoming shows in the Reprise! series are “Finian’s Rainbow” and “Wonderful Town.” Here’s hoping Reprise! fulfills its initial promise.

Promises, Promises

UCLA-Freud Playhouse; 566 seats; $45 top

Production

Marcia Seligson and Reprise! Broadway's Best in Concert present a musical in two acts, with book by Neil Simon, music by Burt Bacharach and lyrics by Hal David, based on the screenplay "The Apartment" by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. Directed by Stuart Ross.

Creative

Choreography, Adam Shankman; set, Neil Peter Jampolis; lighting, Jane Reisman; sound, Jon Gottlieb; musical director, Peter Matz; associate musical director, Gerald Sternbach; casting, April Webster/David Bloch. Opened and reviewed May 14, 1997; runs through May 18. Running time: 2 hours, 35 min.

Cast

Cast: Jason Alexander (Chuck Baxter), Alan Thicke (J.D. Sheldrake), Karen Fineman (Fran Kubelik), Charlie Robinson (Mr. Dobitch), Lise Simms (Sylvia Gilhooley), Paul Kreppel (Mr. Kirkeby), Kristie Canavan (Ginger Wong), Alan Rachins (Mr. Eichelberger), Anne Fletcher (Vivien Della Hoya), Barney Martin (Dr. Dreyfuss), Fred Willard (Mr. Vanderhof), Linda Hart (Peggy Olson), Jean Smart (Marge MacDougall); Jill Matson (Miss Polansky), Jeff Broadhurst (Karl Kubelik), Kyme (Dentist's Nurse).
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