One of the '60s' most prolific pop composers, Burt Bacharach wrote only two musicals: Ross Hunter's cheesy remake of Frank Capra's Lost Horizon (1973), a bomb, and an adaptation by Neil Simon of Billy Wilder's Oscar-winning The Apartment, rechristened Promises, Promises (1968), a big hit on Broadway that ran three years. With his frequent partner at the time, lyricist Hal David, he wrote in a jazz-infused style with jagged meter and surprising chord progressions. His was a distinct sound, brassy and hip, and it helped define America's urban sophistication during the time of hippies and pot.
In a beauty of a concert staging by Bayou City Concert Musicals – Houston's best of the best – Promises is an adult show that hinges on adultery in the workplace, as horny male executives make secretaries when they should be home in the suburbs with their families. Accounting drudge Chuck (the beguiling Dylan Godwin) is going nowhere at business when his bosses discover he has a convenient apartment nearby. In his devil's agreement, he lets them have his place for their trysts, and they in turn give him glowing work reviews, moving him up through the ranks. He falls hard for co-worker Fran (lovely Katie Fridsma), but she repeatedly puts him off. When head boss J.D. Sheldrake (John Gremillion) wheedles his way into Chuck's apartment swap, who should be Sheldrake's latest conquest but Fran?
Promises is wise and witty, although some of those hoary Neil Simon one-liners don't land with quite the burst they once did. Wilder's patented sardonic dark humor of the movie is still there, but softened somewhat by Broadway musical appeal. That singing quartet of businessmen (Jim Salners, John Raley, Jay Tribble and Jon L. Egging), who need an extramarital nest, “Where Can You Take a Girl,” could comfortably fit into How to Succeed or even Guys and Dolls without missing a cue. But it's Bacharach's jaunty lilt that gives Promises its distinctive kick. His music and its arrangements are different from those of other shows of the era, a big-city sound with syncopated rhythms and refreshing melody. There's a female backup quartet who “ohh” and “ahh” from the orchestra in eerie harmony, a choral sound that almost defines the '60s. The big hit tune from the show is, of course, “I'll Never Fall in Love Again,” sung at the beginning by Fran to strumming guitar. Pop goddess Dionne Warwick, a particular favorite of Bacharach's, would eventually record the song and propel it to No. 1 in the country.
Promises is wise and witty, with Chuck addressing us directly about his dreams and travails, which adds to his sympathetic appeal. He's a likable shlub, and Godwin, with those lively Eddy Cantor eyes and putty face, has us in the palm of his hand from his first number, “Half as Big as Life,” through his closer, “Promises, Promises.” An accomplished song-and-dance man, he knows exactly what he's doing and has as much fun performing for us as we do watching him perform. He draws us right in.
Playing off him nicely is Fridsma, last seen in Main Street's Working and, before that, knocking our socks off as Aldonza in Man of La Mancha at Queensbury. She, too, is a natural on stage, and her singing voice suits Bacharach's cool swing. Her Fran is compromised. She wants Sheldrake, is in love with him, actually, but he's in no rush to divorce his wife. After her unsuccessful suicide attempt, she almost takes the louse back. But then, there's Chuck by her side. Maybe she'll try romance one more time. Maybe not. We leave the wounded couple playing gin. “Deal the cards” is her final line before fade-out.
And then there's incomparable Brooke Wilson, who steals the show as soused-up barfly Marge. She appears in only two scenes, but her meteoric impact lingers long after her sassy character turn. She does drunk as well as W.C. Fields, taking a pratfall with delicious tackiness. She even dances drunk in her duet with Chuck, “A Fact Can Be A Beautiful Thing.” In her owl wrap – yes, owl – she molts divinely as she puts the screws to pitiable Chuck. A hilarious star turn, to be sure.
Fluidly co-directed by Bayou City Concert Musicals artistic director Paul Hope and Stages artistic associate Mitchell Greco, Promises practically floats onstage. As in all its productions, the settings are rudimentary, with maestro Dominique Royem and her finely tuned orchestra onstage, but nothing seems to be missing. Fully costumed by Barbara Terry (all Montrose vintage clothing shops must now be low on short skirts and white boots), the show's complete as it is. Melissa Pritchett's spirited choreography is replete with frug; while Krissy Richmond's staging of the office party's “Turkey-Lurkey Time,” in the manner of Michael Bennett's original, is a frolicsome vintage fun fest that closes the first act on a contact high.
Under the sure, loving hands at BCCM, this rare musical takes flight. I promise.
Promises, Promises. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Heinen Hall at Houston Community College, 3517 Austin. For information, call 713-465-6484 or visit bayoucityconcertmusicals.org. $25-$70.
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