If anxiety over the economic malaise, or the ongoing unrest in Iraq, or that spooky new virus has you lying awake at night, fear not and forget the pharmaceuticals. A new form of sedative is at hand: It’s Broadway’s revue of Burt Bacharach-Hal David songs, “The Look of Love.” Please note that it should be taken only in small doses. One act is probably more than enough for average adults, and repeat visits could leave you comatose.
It took four talents to conceive this thoroughly misconceived production. None is likely to be featuring it prominently on future resumes. Scott Ellis provided the sluggish direction, Ann Reinking the simultaneously bland and derivative choreography. They were abetted by the unfortunately named music director, David Loud, who dutifully turns even the zestier songs into so much pasteurized cheese; and David Thompson, a book writer who presumably thought up some of the more complicated attempts to find varied theatrical imagery suitable to David’s I-love-you-don’t-leave-me-I’ll-make-it-through lyrics.
There are more additions to the evening’s gallery of ignominy. The set by the talented Derek McLane is a drab wall of wire mesh, with platforms and towers of the same material, that suggests the exercise yard at a minimum-security prison. Then there are the costumes by the generally reliable Martin Pakledinaz, a collection of contemporary styles that might have been culled from the sale racks at T.J. Maxx or the casual corner of the Men’s Wearhouse, with a few tacky nods to the 1960s tossed in here and there.
This is, in fact, the Roundabout Theater Co.’s second attempt to fashion a workable evening of theater from the songbook of Bacharach and David, whose mellow ballads and jaunty pop ditties about romance and relationships catered to the more middle-of-the-road musical appetites of the 1960s. The first tried to shoehorn the songs into a sketchy story about contemporary singles meeting and mating; it stalled back in 1998 — when the Bacharach-David revival was somewhat fresher, it should be noted — at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater, a victim of dismal reviews, including one from this critic, then on the West Coast. (Theater trivia-lovers might want to know that it starred, among others, Broadway’s thoroughly modern Millie, Sutton Foster.)
The new model scraps any notion of tying songs to specific characters and storylines, instead serving them up relatively straight or in dubious little vignettes. The result is marginally less silly but hardly more entertaining. It wafts along like the theatrical equivalent of Muzak; by the end of the evening you may feel you’ve been trapped in an elevator for two hours.
The songs were not written to hold a stage, and they don’t. As gifted singers like Liz Callaway and Capathia Jenkins emote their way through one lilting ballad after another, the strain to pump up the emotion distorts the gentle allure of Bacharach’s delicate melodies and exposes the modest range of feeling in David’s elegant lyrics. There’s probably a reason these songs’ finest interpreters — Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick, to name two — were better known as recording artists than live performers. The songs shine brightest in laid-back pop arrangements and smooth, unforced vocal performances ideally served by records: Dusty’s intimate whisper or Dionne’s distinctively jazzy, clipped delivery. Given the hard sell in lush arrangements, as they too often are here, their charms tend to evaporate, and monotony becomes a problem.
A list of the evening’s low points would be easy to compile. Somewhere near the top would have to be the segment in which Kevin Ceballo sings a syrupy version of “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” in Spanish while the leggy dancer Shannon Lewis does a writhing solo ballet, often from a prone position. Then there’s Reinking’s uninspired recycling of the usual Fosse cliches — the hats, the garters, the chairs, the lewd leg-spreads — in “What’s New Pussycat?,” performed by a trio of females in an arrangement that shamelessly apes the Kander & Ebb of “Chicago” and “Cabaret.” (Even the chairs are tacky!)
There are a few likable segments. Desmond Richardson and Eugene Fleming perform a fleet and charming urban tap routine to the music of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” which blessedly serves to spare us the song’s excruciating lyrics. The singers are all talented, but Callaway and Jenkins turn in some particularly distinguished vocal performances, including a duet on “Promises, Promises.”
Janine LaManna is also in fine voice, but her eerie resemblance to Celine Dion tends to remind you that the show’s general aesthetic is uncomfortably close to that of a Las Vegas nightclub act. With its emphasis on solo numbers performed on an essentially bare stage, it also suggests “American Idol” for the boomer set. Which, I suppose, makes me Simon Cowell.
The Look of Love