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Keeping Promises

Against all odds, Main Street Theater's new show manages to be likable

Burt Bacharach will forever be associated with the 1960s. Tunes like "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," made famous by the velvet-voiced Dionne Warwick, defined urbane cool -- the miniskirted, martini-loving, high-fidelity sort. But in 1968, Bacharach also wrote a fairly successful Broadway musical. Promises, Promises ran for 1,281 performances and won the show's star, the late Jerry Orbach (of more recent Law & Order fame), a Tony Award. Orbach played C.C. Baxter, the lovable schlump at the center of the story. Of course, Bacharach and Orbach got some help from playwright Neil Simon and lyricist Hal David. The impressive group turned Billy Wilder's quintessential '60s film The Apartment into a musical that was most successful for the way it captured the zeitgeist of the era when corporate America came of age.

That said, Promises, Promises is not a show that travels easily across the years. The story treats women like objects; married men are almost always horny philanderers who openly harass their secretaries; and heavy drinking is de rigueur at office parties. And much of Bacharach's Broadway music, aside from a few fabulously familiar hits, is surprisingly silly. An especially egregious tune called "Turkey Lurkey Time" has a roomful of secretaries and bosses kicking up their heels to a song about the holidays.

So it's nothing short of a wonder that Main Street Theater has conjured such a likable production from this dated script and music. Rob Babbitt's lively direction manages to make us believe once again in the highball charm of the office world of the 1960s, despite the rampant sexual harassment. Of course, the weight of the production is carried on the shoulders of the actor who plays C.C. Baxter. He's on stage for most of the show, and he often speaks straight out to the audience, narrating his deepest and most self-deprecating thoughts. It's a demanding part: Baxter is a loser, but he's also someone we identify with and someone we like precisely because he can't seem to get it right. Oh, and he sings a few famous tunes, too, so whoever plays Baxter has to sound good, too.

Details

Through January 22. $20-$30
Main Street Theater, 4617 Montrose, 713-524-6706

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Enter Joel Sandel, a Main Street favorite, who plays put-upon C.C. Baxter with an endearingly crumpled half-smile that ought to make any audience fall head over heels. It's Sandel who turns this otherwise tired story into a surprisingly winning night of theater. His Baxter is the quintessential adorable straight man.

He starts out the story just an ordinary corporate cog, a Joe Schmoe who'd like to get ahead one day. Nobody pays him much attention -- even the girl he's got a crush on can't remember his name. But Baxter's life changes dramatically when the married executives in his office realize that he's got an apartment in Manhattan, a place "where you can take a girl," which they sing about in one of the funnier numbers in the show.

Each convinces Baxter to lend out his apartment for an hour or two so he can fool around. And each promises to help Baxter ascend the corporate ladder as payback. Of course, all this eventually backfires in a narrative twist toward the end. Baxter finally grows a spine and learns there's more to life than eating in the executive dining room.

All this might sound ridiculous in this age of corporate scandals, but Sandel makes us believe in a kinder, gentler officemate, a man who really does have a heart beating under his Brooks Brothers suit. He's helped along by four stoogelike co-workers, played by David R. Wald, Mike Lovell, Robert Leeds and Terry Jones, who make a pack of ridiculously funny foils for Sandel's warm and earnest Baxter. Also winning is Steve Garfinkel, who plays Dr. Dreyfuss, the neighbor who watches the comings and goings in Baxter's apartment with a mixture of awe and horror.

Less successful is Ivy Castle's pretty Fran, Baxter's love interest. Castle has a lovely voice that's perfectly suited to this music, but she doesn't offer much in the way of characterization. It's hard to understand why Baxter's so undone by her.

Boris Kaplun's set, with its swiftly moving flats that open and close on changing scenes, is fun to watch, and Ruth Dentel's costumes establish the period and keep things upbeat. Fran wears a '60s coat-and-hat ensemble that manages to be both funny and pretty at the same time.

Like Bacharach's name, this is a musical inextricably tied to the smooth hope of the American '60s, when corporate America seemed like a cool place to be. Most of us now know it's a snake pit at best, but Sandel's performance gives us reason to dream.

 
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