Burt Bacharach is back on Broadway, and his music for “Promises, Promises” — which he wrote in 1968 with lyricist Hal David and bookwriter Neil Simon — sounds just as good and bright and joyfully tuneful as it did back in 1968. Sean Hayes, from “Will and Grace,” makes a smashingly good Broadway debut as the likable nebbish of a leading man. But the show doesn’t play anywhere near as well as it once did; changes have been made to the material that turn out to be ill-advised — changing the emphasis, slowing the momentum, and throwing sand into the gears of Simon’s laugh machine.
Hayes, who proved his stage-worthiness in the 2008 summer production of “Damn Yankees” at City Center, is totally at home as Chuck Baxter, the small cog in a large insurance company who trades his apartment key for a promotion. (Simon provided one of the funniest books of its time, but he was working on the master template of Billy Wilder’s 1960 classic “The Apartment.”)
Hayes is not quite up to the singing chores, but his comedic skills more than compensate. The trouble comes in the person of Kristin Chenoweth, that talented and resourceful star of stage and smallscreen. “Promises” has always been Chuck’s show; the role of Fran, the hostess at the employees cafeteria with whom he is smitten, is written as a secondary lead.
With Chenoweth onboard, the authors have been prevailed upon to equalize the roles; Fran now gets a couple of extra, extraneous solos shoehorned in with clumsy scenes. (A mystery suitor leaves a beautiful bouquet, so all the secretaries ask Fran about him and she sings “Say a Little Prayer”?) This and “A House Is Not a Home” get cheers of recognition, and Chenoweth does well with them; but they don’t make sense within the context of story, or the context of the character.
Most of today’s audience, admittedly, is unfamiliar with the show and won’t carp at the changes. But they might well notice that something is off; “Promises” is like a well-calibrated watch that has been pulled apart and reassembled with a spring missing (or in this case, with a couple of extra parts).
Add to this that Fran is supposed to be the youngest and prettiest of the office gals hooked up with the philandering executives; while the star is still relatively young, she is probably the oldest woman onstage and one of only a few cast members who was alive when the show opened in 1968. This gives her a worldly aspect, especially in the interpolated numbers, that is at odds with what was heretofore a young and exceedingly vulnerable character.
Strong contributions come from the three featured leads. Tony Goldwyn makes a finely villainous Sheldrake, connecting well with his solo “Wanting Things.” Dick Latessa, an old hand at Simon comedy, provides plenty of laughs as the neighborly doctor-next-door. Pretty much stealing the show is Katie Finneran as Marge MacDougall, the Christmas Eve pickup with a penchant for stingers. Let it be said that this character just about always steals “Promises”; Marge has only 15 minutes of stage time at the top of the second act, and Simon created a perfectly uproarious character that can’t miss. Even so, Finneran — wearing that coat of genuine owl — is a total hoot.
Director/choreographer Rob Ashford is less resourceful than usual and only intermittently effective; his big idea here seems to be to add dancers doing the frug in the background. It is not Ashford’s fault that Michael Bennett’s original staging of “Turkey Lurkey Time,” the big first-act production number, is easily viewable on the Internet; but it is that energy and humor that is altogether missing from the current staging.
Neither is the physical production especially helpful. (The time has been changed from 1968 to 1962, for reasons unknown.) Most fortunately, the producers have seen fit to leave the music department alone. Jonathan Tunick, whose distinctive work on “Promises” forged a new Broadway sound in 1968, has reworked his charts for a smaller band but keeps that joyful Bacharach beat intact.
Promises” still has those songs and plenty of jokes, plus Hayes’ ingratiating performance. The producers — due to the lure of Chenoweth’s star power, or in fear that “Promises” might seem dated or weak — have gambled by placing their diminutive star in the spotlight. This might well pay off in ticket sales, but it certainly tamps down the hilarity of a formerly well-made show.