`Promises' doesn't always deliver

Show: The 1968 musical reveals its age in its Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre production.


August 08, 2002|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre's current show -- Promises, Promises -- promised more than it delivers in entertaining contemporary theater.

Still, the play is worth seeing because first-rate actors enliven and elevate the dated material.

Based on the 1960 Oscar-winning film The Apartment, the play was reworked by Neil Simon and transformed into a 1968 musical by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

Although Bacharach's music is generally distinguished by sophisticated, unusual harmonies and syncopated rhythms, and Simon has few peers in creating snappy dialogue, both composer and playwright seem to have become victims of '60s irrelevance.

Simon's script lacks his customary wit, with few jokes added to the original film, and Bacharach's music often promises catchy tunes that slip into prosaic Broadway fare.

The plot of The Apartment and Promises, Promises traces how accountant C.C. Baxter climbs the corporate ladder by lending the key to his conveniently located Manhattan apartment to various middle-aged executives at his insurance company for trysts with their young office assistants. Baxter finally reaches executive status when he lends the key to J.S. Sheldrake, who is courting Fran Kubelik, Baxter's unrequited love.

In its celebration of promiscuity and sexual liberation, with philanderers arranging trysts with eager-to-please 20-something office staffers, Promises, Promises is awfully dated. Bacharach's unexciting score and David's often-tired lyrics leave Summer Garden music director Eileen Eaton little to work with that captures Bacharach's unique sound.

Despite the show's inherent problems, Summer Garden director Bob Rude manages to present on balance an enjoyable evening of theater.

Rude moves the action at a relatively brisk pace through several complex scene changes and, with choreographer Lesley Rauch's help, adds period camp to brighten the ensemble numbers.

Above all, Promises, Promises boasts a tour-de-force performance by leading man Joe Rose. This gifted song-and-dance man captures the essence of C.C. Baxter's charm -- a blend of naivete and shrewdness. Rose is on stage almost constantly -- singing, dancing, delivering monologues and conversing in asides to the audience.

If all of this weren't challenging enough, Rose, dressed in a business suit complete with shirt and tie, was required to execute some demanding choreography in sweltering heat on opening night.

Rose is a fine singer who does well delivering the tongue-twisting lyrics of "She Likes Basketball," but he seldom has songs that capture Bacharach's essence. His onstage and real-life partner Andrea Elward, who plays Fran Kubelik, is the only cast member who captures the distinctive Bacharach sound. Elward brings an essential component to "Knowing When to Leave," "Whoever You Are I Love You" and the show's major hit, "I'll Never Fall in Love Again."

Elward conveys Fran Kubelik's gradual disenchantment in her affair with her married boss, J.D. Sheldrake (Harold Stentz-Whalen), and her growing attraction to Rose's Chuck Baxter.

Because the play is set in New York during the winter, Elward and the rest of the cast wear clothes appropriate to the season, which on humid 90-degree evenings in Annapolis constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. All troupers, the ensemble offered lively dance numbers opening night despite the heat.

Of the supporting players, Ed Wintermute is outstanding as Baxter's neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss, one of the few sympathetic male roles in the play. Wintermute sings and dances with easy charm and gets the most out of every comic line. His duet with Rose, "A Young Pretty Girl Like You," is magical.

The other men in the cast don't fare as well as Wintermute because their roles as philanderers seem so out of date. When a male quartet performs "Where Can You Take a Girl?" the play's major flaw is painfully apparent. What might have amused a 1968 audience falls flat in 2002.

Two female supporting players lend needed comic relief. Sheri Ferrelli, who plays Mr. Sheldrake's secretary and former lover, Miss Olson, delivers her every spirited line exquisitely. Andrea Jopp, in the smaller role of Marge MacDougal, offers high comic moments as she parodies a young woman on the prowl.

Despite its flaws, Promises, Promises is a worthwhile version of a show that is rarely done in this area. Reservations: Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, 410-268-9212.

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