By Colin Douglas
As might be expected of a concert version of a show, it’s the music that drives the production. In this respect, BrightSide Theatre’s Artistic Director Jeffrey Cass has chosen wisely for his second offering in BrightSide’s recital series (his first concert presentation was “Nine”). Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s perky and assertively rhythmic score is the reason audiences should flock to BrightSide Theatre where they’ll enjoy a production that pulsates with joy. The excellent script, written by comedy genius Neil Simon, is strong and very funny. The story, although perhaps a bit dated for 21st century audiences, will delight with its bizarre plot and quirky characters. But it’s all in the music, which is everything here. The opening night audience couldn’t refrain from tapping their feet, snapping their fingers, bobbing their heads and sometimes singing along with these bouncy and beautiful songs.
This bright, buoyant and seldom-produced 1968 musical comedy is based upon the classic Billy Wilder movie, The Apartment. This refreshing show tells the story of a up-and-coming young executive who’s pressured into letting his superiors use his flat for their weekly extramarital romps. While feeling guilty about trying to climb the corporate ladder in this way, Chuck Baxter attempts to win the attention and love of beautiful Fran Kubelik, the hostess at the company’s executive dining room. What he doesn’t realize is that Miss Kubelik is the latest dalliance for Chuck’s boss, Mr. Sheldrake, making his attempts at romance with Fran awkwardly unsuccessful.
But it’s primarily the Bacharach/David score that truly sells this show. The original cast album won a Grammy Award and several of Bacharach’s tunes became popular hit songs. The title number and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” helped make songstress Dionne Warwick into a singing sensation. When the musical comedy was revived on Broadway in 2010 two more of the composer/lyricist’s popular songs were added to the score. They include “A House is Not a Home” and “I Say a Little Prayer,” which also became hits for Ms Warwick. While there’s not a bad number in this score, some of the show’s other terrific tunes include “Knowing When to Leave,” “She Likes Basketball,” “Where Can You Take a Girl,” “Wanting Things” and the festive holiday hit, “Turkey Lurkey Time.”
The excellent cast stars the boyishly handsome, mega-talented and effervescent Jon Cunningham as Chuck Baxter. Seen in BrightSide’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, as well as having appeared on almost every Chicagoland stage, Cunningham makes the stage his home. He’s onstage for practically the entire show and never seems to tire. We root for his Chuck Baxter as he journeys from a shy, tongue-tied young man with a crush on a lovely young lady, into a caring, confident suitor who finally realizes discovers his true potential and wins the girl.
Playing opposite Mr. Cunningham as Fran Kubelik is the musically masterful Shaina Summerville. Ms Summerville sings the heck out of her numbers, particularly with the ladies ensemble in “I Say a Little Prayer,” as well as in her beautiful ballads, such as “A House is Not a Home,” “Whoever You Are” and “Knowing When to Leave.” However, as sublimely as she sounds, the actress doesn’t always fully connect with what she’s singing. Thinking of her songs more as musical monologues and trying to project the thoughts, feelings and intentions behind her words would add so much more. In the moments when Ms Summerville finds the relevance in her songs she truly sparkles.
Two excellent character actors, who are no strangers to BrightSide Theatre, once again do a fine job in this concert musical. As J.D. Sheldrake, the musical’s antagonist, Dennis Schnell does an terrific job, both in his musical numbers and in creating a three-dimensional character. The actor plays Sheldrake as more than simply a villain, allowing the audience a peek into the character’s emotional struggles. And Jim Heatherly, last seen during the holidays as a magical Kris Kringle in BrightSide’s “Miracle on 34th Street, is very good as Dr. Dreyfus, Chuck Baxter’s neighbor. Bringing his perfect comic timing and superbly dry humor to this role, Mr. Heatherly once again leaves his mark.
Other standouts in this large cast include comely Julie Bayer, playing both Kathy, an office employee, and hot-to-trot barfly, Marge MacDougall. She flirts shamelessly with Chuck on Christmas Eve with the intention of filling his stocking with some surprises. Ms Bayer, along with Kimberlyn Gayle, Sarah Inendino, Meghan Kessel, Amy Rodriguez and Sophie Smekens (who amuses as Sheldrake’s jilted secretary, Miss Olson) all play various office personnel and shine harmonically as musical backup singers, referred to as Orchestra Voices.
Sean Rhead, who was magnificent as the Announcer in BrightSide’s Miracle on 34th Street adds his beautiful baritone and plenty of humor to the men’s chorus. He also has a funny moment as Fran’s protective brother, Karl Kubelik. There are two more gifted young actor/singers who greatly add to the male ensemble, playing eager office executives hoping to use Chuck’s apartment for their extramarital trysts. They are Max McNeal Martin and Michael J. Santos. Hopefully audiences will be enjoying these two talented performers in many more upcoming productions.
These concert productions are an excellent way to bring little-known, seldom-produced musicals to audiences. The staging is simple, the cast is costumed all in black and there’s no set and very few props. The company carry their scripts, but they’re so familiar with their lines and music that it’s just a formality, in most cases. While Kitty Karn is the production’s Vocal Director, the wonderful Musical Direction and accompaniment for this show is provided by Rex Meyer on keyboard, conducting his full-sounding onstage orchestra. Tim Elliott also does a masterful job of balancing the sound so that the cast isn’t overpowered by the brass and percussion-heavy instruments. Hand and stand microphones are used by the cast so that the musical blend is perfect.
There may not be another opportunity for Chicagoland audiences to enjoy Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s gorgeous pop-sounding score, since Promises, Promises isn’t produced very often. Remarkably, although the plot isn’t exactly politically correct today, this could be considered another period piece about big business, much like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, I Can Get It For You Wholesale, or How Now, Dow Jones. The brilliant, infectious musical score make shows like this well-worth being presented and important as deliciously tuneful entertainments for today.
Promises, Promises: In Concert runs through January 22nd at the Madden Theatre, in the Fine Arts Center of North Central College, 171 Chicago Ave., Naperville, IL.
For tickets or more information, please call (630)447-8497 or visit www.brightsidetheatre.com.