Seriously, kids — Burt Bacharach? Millennial age actor-musician-songwriter Kyle Riabko developed an almighty crush on this composer of an earlier fuddy-duddy generation, and “What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined” is the product of that passion. Picked over and rearranged to within an inch of their lives, some 30 tunes (“Alfie,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” et al.) are not entirely recognizable. But as performed by the besotted Riabko and a personable cast of twentysomething singer-rocker-musicians, and helmed like a living artwork by master of movement Steven Hoggett (“Once”), this offbeat songbook musical should connect with its target generation.
New York Theatre Workshop, a funky 199-seater in the heart of the East Village and the backyard of NYU, is a hugely audience-friendly setting for this show. Scenic designers Christine Jones (“American Idiot”) and Brett J. Banakis have turned the intimate space into a clubhouse — or maybe a playhouse. Assorted rugs and pieces of old carpets completely cover the walls of the auditorium, and vintage lamps are scattered everywhere. Battered sofas pop up in unexpected places onstage, for cast and audience members to sit on. And rising against the back wall is a pyramid of musical instruments that completes the overall effect of an art installation.
Masterminding the whole business, Hoggett handles the supple young bodies of the seven singer-musicians as if they were also sculptural pieces, encouraging them to make love to their instruments, or posing them on a slow-moving revolve — signature techniques carried over from Hoggett-choreographed shows like “Once” and “Black Watch.” Although the stylized moves are minimal — eyes left, eyes right, chin up, chin down, step-together-step — the pleasing impression is of a precision dance drill.
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For a piece of major deconstruction, Riabko’s musical cut-and-paste job on the Bacharach oeuvre maintains a shapely stage presence. Some songs land virtually intact, albeit in up-to-date arrangements: an innocent “I Say a Little Prayer,” a drolly comic male duet on “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” and Nathaly Lopez’s slow, thoughtful and altogether beautiful take on “Don’t Make Me Over.” Nobody messes with “Close to You,” either, although it loses its deadly romantic earnestness when sung by seven giddy performers piled into an overstuffed sofa.
For the most part, though, Riabko is more likely to latch onto a musical phrase or a snatch of lyric (by Bacharach’s longtime collaborator, Hal David) and repeat it over and over, like a child playing with a bright, shiny toy. “What’s it all about?” — the haunting thematic question of “Alfie” — proves an irresistible lure for a company of 20-year-olds whose entire generation is pondering that very question. “When you get caught between the moon and New York City” also resonates with young people drunk on the romance of life in the big city. “On my own,” penned by Carole Bayer Sager, is another one of those lyrics that lands like an arrow in the heart — especially when sung in the slo-mo musical phrasing that Riabko has adopted as his own signature style.
That moody, pensive approach best suits Riabko’s voice, a soft, whispery tenor that could make the list of ingredients on a cereal box sound warm and intimate. And let’s not be coy about it — the entire show positively dotes on that pretty-pretty boy with his pretty-pretty voice. But even when a soulful reading seems forced (was “A House Is Not a Home” really necessary?), the sound of it is seductive.
Which can’t be said, unfortunately, for the interludes of hard-driving rock that are supposed to be dramatic, but are just pushy. There’s just so far you can push a retro-cool icon like Burt Bacharach — and hard-driving rock is a push too far.