The Production Company
3 October 2012
The State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 7 October
The Production Company finish their 2012 season with 1968's Promises, Promises and, for all its promise, it seemed to leave its audience perplexed. This is the first time I've been at Production Company opening night that didn't end with a standing ovation.
Promises, Promises opened on Broadway in 1968, the West End in 1969 and only came back to Broadway in 2010. Based on Billy Wilder's film The Apartment (written for Jack Lemmon and staring Shirley Maclaine and Fred MacMurray), it's a one-off collaboration between Burt Bacharach (music), Hal David (lyrics) and Neil Simon (book); names that should righty leave any theatre lover drooling.
Simon had four shows running on Broadway in 1966 (Sweet Charity, The Star-Spangled Girl, The Odd Couple, and Barefoot in the Park), and the book (the action is all in the text) is as witty and observant as any of his award-winning plays. Hal David's lyrics are fautlessly funny and still able to break hearts (the show's most famous for "I'll never fall in love again") and I don't believe anyone who says that they don't like Burt Bacharach. Many try and copy his sound, but no one sounds like Bacharach better than Bacharach, and Orchestra Victoria capture his distinct dissonance, ear-melting harmonies and the 60s brass and big orchestra sound that ensures that even the show's lesser numbers are wonderful.
Set in 1962, it's a story about young no one accountant Chuck Baxter who lets middle-aged executives use his bachelor pad to have sex with young women, based on the promises that he'll get a promotion. Meanwhile he's in love with fellow no one Fran Kubelik, not knowing that she's one of the women in his apartment.
The gorgeous design captures the time, the ensemble ensure that "Turky lurky time" brings the house down, Chelsea Plumley's Marge MacDougall is a comic highlight with "A fact can be a beautiful thing", but the night belongs to wonderful Matt Hetherington as Chuck Baxter. Dismissing those who have been before him (Lemmon, Jerry Orbach, Sean Hayes), his Chuck is impossible not to adore (even with some lyric hicoughs and a sound mix that sometimes lost him in the band) and Hetherington is the heart of this production.
Production Company favourite Marina Prior is Fran, the object of Baxter's love and a young woman who naively sees no option but to be treated like she's worthless. Sure Matt and Marina's aren't 20, but vocally Marina's voice is too full and emotionally she brings too much maturity to Fran, missing her lightness and frustrating innocence. I would have loved to have seen Marina play the older and far funnier Marge.
But casting isn't what's holding this production back. Promises, Promises is a product of its time; a time of amazing clothes and music, but a time of attitudes that we hope not to see anymore. In his 1996 memoir, Rewrites, Neil Simon described the "enormous temptations" of their out of town run and says, "We were in a pre-AIDS world where all you had to worry about was your conscience and your discretion." It's not hard to see that the attitudes on the stage were the attitudes of the time.
Choosing to present this story is already a choice to comment on these attitudes. By making one of the young women a man, director Nadia Tass makes a clear statement that we are looking at this story with a contemporary perspective, but this tone and directorial voice is inconsistent and confusing.
It's story about a woman who believe's she's nothing because she's treated like nothing, but playing the executives as buffoons and their 'girls' as drunken idiots supports the idea that what they are doing is harmless fun. It's this contradicting attitude to the time and the characters that leaves the production feeling awkward and flat. Of course, theatre is not tv, but Mad Men is set at the same time in the same city and world, and presents the misogyny of the time without demeaning the women (or the men). Jilted secretary Miss Olsen (Hester Van Der Vyver) grasps the tone perfectly – nearly as well as Mad Men's Miss Olsen – and more of this subtle tone would give the show the guts it's missing.
As Promises, Promises is a show that's rarely produced (despite its pedigree), it's a wonderful choice for the season and subscribers won't be disappointed. There are issues, but I still enjoyed it more than the raved-about Chess and The Producers. It's a piece that lets story and character lead and any Bacharach is better than no Bacharach.
This was on AussieTheatre.com