Friday, June 4, 2010

REVIEW: Promises, Promises

Review of the May 30 matinee performance. At the Broadway Theatre, New York City. 2 hours, 45 minutes, including one intermission. Starring Sean Hayes, Kristin Chenoweth, Tony Goldwyn, Katie Finneran, Dick Latessa, Brooks Ashmanskas, Helen Ankler, Matt Loeher, Sean Martin Hingston and Ken Land. Book by Neil Simon, music by Burt Bacharach and lyrics by Hal David. Directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford.

Let me take care of all of the elephants in the room before I start.  No, he doesn't.  She sure can!  And, if you worked in an executive office today, like I do, you'd realize that Promises, Promises is not nearly as dated as you think it is.  In fact, change the sex of a couple of the secretaries, call them administrative assistants, and then add a female executive, and the show could take place today!  Of course, if it did, we'd lose one of the show's chief assets, the glorious score by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.  Its sound is distinctly sixties and works better than anything Green Day, Rihanna or Lady Gaga might come up with to replace it.  No, the quaintness of the piece serves the themes just fine.  It is nice to laugh at (and long for) an America before we became so jaded, while still being able to recognize that office sexual politics hasn't really changed save for the addition of a Ladies' executive washroom right next to the men's.  Say what you want about Neil Simon's hilarious, touching and, yes, old fashioned book.  But don't you long for the days when you didn't have to worry about so much even at work?  When your iPhone, iPad or iWhatever doesn't interrupt your every meal?  When a doctor came to your door and helped you without asking for your insurance card or consulting good Samaritan laws before treating you?  And isn't it nice to see a drunken, lonely woman get her way without having to be a slut, hooker or criminal?  Come on people!  Lighten up!

Director/choreographer Rob Ashford has taken the lead out of the old school script, however.  Gone are the vamps while the scenery changes or the cast changes costumes.  Today's Promises, Promises moves with a vitality that can only be compared to a busy beehive - ordered chaos - and it does so with a fluidity usually reserved for camera tricks and long non-stop pans in movies.  Ashford has made this into a theatrical onstage movie, appropriate given its source material.  It may look and sound like 1962 urban America, but it moves like the 21st century. 

From the opening notes of the overture, with its breathtaking choreography - period fruging mixed with Broadway jazz and even ballet - and the most original inclusion of props in a number since Crazy for You, the show takes off and rarely slows down.  The entire production dances from start to finish, including the entr'acte and the curtain call (mercifully NOT a mega-mix!), and everywhere in between.  And the ensemble is up to the considerable task.  It is no wonder they have orchestra singers to supplement the vocals.  Perhaps the only mistake Ashford has made is in not recreating the iconic "Turkey Lurkey Time" choreography.  Oh, he pays homage to it, but it never really takes off like the original.  Of course, we are assuming that recreating was an option; it could very well be that the Michael Bennett estate wouldn't allow it.  If that's the case, we can forgive, right?  Well, yes and no...the number is still the flattest spot.

And the book scenes are equally rapid fire and cinematic.  With the exception of the realistic apartment and the bar scene, the rest of Scott Pask's nostalgic set is more suggestive than realistic.  The set pieces whirl in and out at a dangerous, urgent pace, and, when combined with Donald Holder's equally nostalgic lighting (on the darker side with pools of light) the elements come together with Ashford's sure handed direction and we always know whether we are to be looking at a close up (say of Sean Hayes doing incredible Lucy-style physical comedy on an ultra modern and very slippery chair, or of a tear slowly rolling down Kristin Chenoweth's cheek) or if we should be looking at the whole stage in a sweeping scene.  Often, two places are suggested at once, and their mere placement speaks volumes where mere words would not do.  Add in Bruce Pask's deceptively simple yet complex costumes (they coordinate secretary to boss, and to each given set piece), and you are definitely back in time.  And what a ride to get there!

As I mentioned, the entire ensemble is first rate, each with plenty of character and background business when they are not dancing.  And when they are dancing, they really look like they are having a great time...a genuinely great time.  The opening looked like so much fun, I could barely sit still, and I had to fight the urge not to get up there and join in.  And let me also interject here that "Turkey Lurkey Time"'s flatness is also relative.  It still moves, led by Cameron Adams, Megan Sikora and Mayumi Miguel, fine dancers, all. the cast does everything it can with the number, and they are breathless at the end of it.

The supporting cast includes the four executives who rotate their conquests in and out of the apartment rented by Chuck Baxter (Sean Hayes) played by Brooks Ashmanskas (a trip here as always - God, is he funny - but also much more subdued than in previous shows), Sean Martin Hingston (a great dancer, whom I've admired since Contact), Matt Loeher (on for a missing Peter Benson, but terrific, and a smooth fill in - you'd never know he was the understudy) and Ken Land (stage and screen veteran).  All four are funny, but also disgusting pigs of men, more lascivious than the wolf in Into the Woods, and with no shame.

Newcomer Helen Ankler does a nice turn as the obedient secretary turned scorned mistress, bent on destroying her horny boss and warning all others who cross his path.  Her final speech gets a well-deserved hand, and I'll bet it's because the audience realizes things haven't necessarily changed as much as we think it has.  Tony winner Dick Latessa was born to play one of Neil Simons' patented been-there-done-that-weary-of-the-world New Yorkers.  And boy does he embrace that here, as Dr. Dreyfuss, Chuck's next door neighbor and Fran Kubelik's (Kristen Chenoweth) savior.  He is funny, sweet and delivers his one number, "(You Should Be) Happy" with aplomb.

I was very pleased to find out that Tony Goldwyn  can take charge of a scene, even on the enormous Broadway Theatre stage, and even up against his larger than life above-the-title-stars.  His Sheldrake is everything it needs to be: smooth, in charge, desirable, smouldering, sexy, cowardly, and really cruel.  What makes Goldwyn so good is that he somehow can convey all of those things simultaneously, and even can make you sympathize with him.  And then there is that moment.  That moment were he does something so outrageously wrong that, as cliche as it has become, it still elicits an audible gasp and angry rumblings from the audience.  It is a hairpin turn moment, expertly staged and delivered.

OK, so, yes, Katie Finneran does an amazing star turn in the 12 minute role of Marge MacDougall.  She is everything you've read about and more.  She steals the scenes she is in, but not without the grace required to bring Sean and Kristin and Dick along with her.  In fact, that's what I like best about her energetic appearance.  She could be a complete diva and take it away.  But it is to her credit (and her co-stars and director) that she gives as much as she takes.  And she's smart enough not to push too hard, and really shows that it is best to leave them wanting more. (For the record, Ms. Finneran would be welcome in my home should she win the Tony from Angela Lansbury, her only real competition.  If you follow this blog, you know my profound love for all things Lansbury, so you must know how highly I think of Finneran's performance.)  The other thing I will say is that, despite the level of excitement she brings to the stage during her scene, she is NOT, contrary to popular press opinion, the only reason to see this near perfect revival of a musical.

As Chuck Baxter, Sean Hayes gets to bring his trademark smile, rapier wit and considerable physical talents to the stage.  They translate very well from TV screen to stage.  He also brings some pretty decent dance moves and a crystal clear and very pleasant singing voice.  The only time I ever felt like he wasn't 100% was during the title number, where he never really lets go.  He could and should belt out those last notes.  His voice can handle it.  I won't even caveat my overall assessment by saying "Considering this is his Broadway debut".  I will say he is giving an accomplished, terrific and exhausting performance.  He has leading man written all over him, and let's hope this is the first of many such opportunities for him.  That he can go toe-to-toe with a group chock full of stage veterans speaks to his immense talents.

And finally, one of today's brightest stars period is giving a spectacular star turn in Promises, Promises.  Let there forever be no more doubt that Kristin Chenoweth is a true star, and that she can handle drama with as much, if not more, skill than as a comedienne.  This is a challenging role, and she does not hold back.  We are all the better for witnessing it.  And while the inclusion of two more sings to the score - "I Say a Little Prayer" and "A House is Not a Home" - isn't really necessary, it does give us two more chances to hear her glorious voice sing songs worthy of her time, and she integrates them well into her performance and character.

Which brings me to those first two elephants in the room which I alluded to at the top.  They are the unnecessarily controversial performances of Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth.  Let me clear it up.  Mr. Hayes does not play a single second of the show like he is covering up his sexuality, nor does he ever "slip."  There is not one shred gay stereotype to his performance - ask Katie Finneran who wrestles with his very obvious tongue 8 shows a week, or just follow his eye as he watches his co-star's departing hemline.  (I know that by even addressing it, I am contributing to the Newsweek flap, but it still enrages me, especially after watching his spectacular performance.  I just hope that if he wins the Tony, it won't be clouded by recent events in the press.)  As for Ms. Chenoweth, I will simply say that I stood up for her at the curtain call and I don't ever stand if I don't think it is appropriate (I am often alone in my seat).  Brava to her for going outside her comfort zone (and apparently the public's comfort zone for her).  Fran Kubelik is a depressed and depressing character, and I think it takes immense courage for Ms. Chenoweth to go out there and play a character that isn't chipper and loved by all.  Her version of Fran has built in aversions.  You can tell she's been hurt many times before.  You can tell she hasn't yet learned her lesson, and you find yourself hoping she'll drop the strong veneer and actually become strong.  That you can still love her and her performance after a very ballsy, emotional and graphic suicide attempt should have her fans cheering.  Shame on you "Cheno" fans who can't support her for being an actress in a new role. SHE IS NOT GLINDA! Get over it!  Mini-rant over.  Thank you.

Promises, Promises suffers from the damned if you do/damned if you don't syndrome that plagues at least one show every season.  Rob Ashford was damned if he had "modernized" the show, and damned because he actually didn't.  Most shamefully, in a business where critics often take actors to task for not stretching, it seems Ms. Chenoweth was damned for doing just that.  Don't let that same should I/shouldn't I type thinking keep you from running to the Broadway Theatre.  Just because "the committee" didn't see fit to honor it, Promises, Promises is one of the four best (actually the top two for me) revivals of the year.  See it!

Grade: A+

(Photos by Joan Marcus.)

Comments?  Leave one here or email me at


  1. Love this review!

    So true about damned if you do, damned if you don't. KC went out of her comfort zone, took a chance - as people have been complaining that she should do - and they're using her past roles to talk negatively about her performance. It's kind of ironic, and all kinds of sad. Her performance is brilliant. It's daring, unafraid to be not liked and honest. She's not on the stage to be liked as Fran, she's portraying a woman. Not a girl, not a princess, not a funny 'character'. A woman. Full blooded, hurt, needy, confused and less than perfect.

    Katie Finneran said it: "If she were a newcomer doing this role, they'd put on a parade for her."

  2. Linn,

    Thanks for reading and taking the time to write! And thanks so much for your kind words. I think Katie said it best!

    Please tell your friends about the blog and please stay in touch.


  3. I agree that Kristin Chenoweth was brilliant. She found the depth and darkness in that part and truly made it her own. But here's thing I believe most of the critics seem to be missing, it's not KC's paying of Fran that's lacking, rather, it's the way the character was written. There was something lost in translation when Fran went from "The Apartment" to "Promises, Promises." I wanted to follow Kristin's take on that character even further, but the part is too narrow in terms of breadth for the depth any actress explores when playing Fran. There's a lack of balance about it that throws the show a bit off kilter.

    I loved this revival of "Promises," but I also would have paid to see the character of Fran Kubelik in a musical or play of her own, since both she (and Chenoweth) deserve at least that much.

  4. Jeff

    I saw Promises, Promises. Your review sums it up wonderfully. Especially your take on Kristin Chenoweth. She was was got me off my butt and down from Boston to NYC for the first time in 15 years.

    I am the same age as Kristin and I totally related to Fran and understood the weary, broken damaged woman that can't quite stand up for herself that she was portraying. I understood the pills and the pain and cheered when she finally told Sheldrake where to go and chose Chuck. Like you I stood for her at the curtain call and I usually don't.

    I think alot of the glitterati trapped in the NYC bubble or locked in the Times building don't realize that there are women who are not 19, and have had struggles like Fran out here in the rest of America.

    I agree with Katie Finneran "If she were a newcomer doing this role, they'd put on a parade for her."

    I can't do anything about a parade but I liked the show and her brilliant risky role enough that I am going back in July to see her again.

    Thanks for a great and thoughtful review.

    BTW Did you know that Kristin tweeted about you?
    "I never do this: thank you to JK THEATER SCENE. Xxoo"

  5. Agree with this review. I actually was at the same performance. Flew in from Austin just to see it and was not at all disappointed.

  6. Thank you for so eloquently putting what was on my mind when I saw the show!

  7. AVB,

    Thanks for reading and writing!

    I need to see The Apartment! Interesting observation about the emphasis on Chuck and less so on Fran. I wonder if it is a sign of times in which it was written. Neil Simon has written some amazing female characters (Charity (just before PP), and since then... Paula, Grandma Kurnitz, Bella...) so I wonder why the decision was made to skew it that way.

    A whole show about Fran would be interesting, and today's Broadway is totally ready for that, I think! Fran in some ways reminds me of Sally Bowles in Cabaret, broken and struggling to survive.

    Please keep reading and tell your friends!

  8. Kayla!

    Thanks for reading and writing to the blog!

    All the way from Austin - you ARE a fan. How cool that we saw the same performance!

    Please keep reading, tell your friends, and stay in touch!

  9. Gretchen,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write.

    Here it is almost a week later, and I am still thinking of Promises, Promises. I think it moved me and thrilled me even more than I thought it did!

    I so appreciate your kind words, and the time it took to read my long review. And I about died when I saw that Ms. Chenoweth Tweeted about my review! That she actually read it is such an honor.

    Please keep reading and be sure to stay in touch - even when you don't agree with my reviews! LOL


  10. Lindsay,

    It is my pleasure to have written this, and even more so that you enjoyed it!

    Please keep reading and write in any time!


  11. Gretchen said it better than i could. thanks for ur wonderful review! i saw the show twice in 3 days and am going back in july to see it again. like u, it struck a chord with me and has been on my mind every since. as a neuropsychology major, i know its my dopamine receptors waiting for me to indulge, so i just HAVE to go. you know its good when ur own biology is affected by a show.
    HOWEVER, was sad that all fans of kristin's got dumped into the same "cheno fan" group u spoke of as having not stood up for her. im part of a HUGE cheno fan group that has done nothing but stick up for her since these bogus reviews have come out. TRUE cheno fans know she did amazing and know that she's anything but just glinda. embracing her works like "into temptation" and promises promises, we know she can do it all and do it all WELL.


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