No one in Western New York is doing what David Bondrow is doing. In just a few short years, the young producer with an old soul has positioned the Lancaster Opera House, where Bondrow is artistic director, as a venue for traditionalist classics. No new concept approaches here, just solid (enough) material, an earnest attitude and some honorable talent.
The opera house’s newest production is Neil Simon, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Promises, Promises,” the 1961 charmer that gave us a couple of Dionne Warwick hits and one showstopper about a turkey, among other darling, dating anecdotes.
It is not a classic in the traditional sense, not like “Damn Yankees” and “Oklahoma,” recent Bondrow-directed productions on this stage. (The former of which I saw and loved with new respect; the latter of which I regrettably missed.) The show’s 2010 Broadway revival starring Sean Hayes and Kristen Chenoweth gave it new luster, as did a memorable rendition of its signature tune, “Turkey Lurkey Time,” in the 2003 cult favorite “Camp.” Still, though, few people know this show on name value.
Simon’s book is based on Billy Wilder’s 1960 classic, “The Apartment,” a misanthropic comedy starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine about a hapless corporate underling who contrives with his executive bosses to rent his apartment for hourly dalliances and affairs. In exchange, he’s fast-tracked up the ladder and into the arms of his major crush. This is the plan. Plans don’t work in musical comedies, though.
Another obvious nod is to the sardonically irreverent 1961 comedy, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” which is almost exactly the same thing, head to toe (sans brothel). Both have their merits, but “Promises” dances decidedly closer to the ground. It’s much easier to hug.
That’s essentially it: foibles, flirtation and fraud. Michael Bennett’s gestured choreography and abstract mod staging, coupled with Bacharach and David’s retro-futuristic score, offer us an evening of front-and-center fluff and background cynicism – artistic interpretation be damned.
Bondrow’s got himself a fantastic production. The second act, noticeably different than the first, curiously enough, loses its steam from time to time. This is a signature of Simon’s witty writing; punch lines do not carry a story. But with Bondrow’s precise eye, it moves along finely enough.
John Kaczorowski is our unlucky-in-love Chuck Baxter, who is about as adorable a character as you can find in the canon. Kaczorowski infuses this fella with such a lovable charm, it’s almost impossible not to care. Kaczorowski is an inoffensive triple threat: We coo for his acting, tap legs at his fantastic foot work, and melt with his warm voice. He’s got the rare ability to lead an ensemble of characters to whom he seems all but invisible. There are plenty of other reasons to see this, but he’s the only one you really need.
Marisa Caruso, as Marge, a latecomer in the second act who cheers poor Chuck up, is a surprise punch in the gut. Caruso’s performance is not only electric and entertaining, it’s practically resuscitating (of Simon’s lethargic first act, not Bondrow’s direction). Her boozy “A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing,” a barroom duet with Chuck, unleashes an inner Katharine Hepburn in Caruso’s bones and polishes it off with a goofy Joan Cusack. Another performance well worth the ticket.
So, too, with Tom Zindle, as Chuck’s curmudgeonly neighbor, who nails Simon’s much sharper second act humor like a carpenter, and Elizabeth Boyke, as Chuck’s sweetheart Fran, the only character that’s missing some parts. It seems, after all of Chuck’s serenade, boyishly coy as it may be, Fran still doesn’t notice what’s right in front of her: A darling man who loves her unconditionally and who’s willing to entertain the socks off of her. Just like he has with us.
3½ stars (Out of 4)
What: “Promises, Promises”
Where: Lancaster Opera House
When: Through Nov. 24