Entertainment :: Theatre

Promises, Promises

by Steve Weinstein
Contributor
Thursday Apr 29, 2010
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Tony Goldwyn & Sean Hayes
Tony Goldwyn & Sean Hayes  (Source:Joan Marcus)

Dear Sean,

All is forgiven. For years, I looked down on you for the minstrel show you put on for so many years in that TV show about fags and and their hags. As a gay man, I felt a sense of betrayal from one of us (we always knew that, long before you made it official on the cover of the Advocate).

True, when I saw you as the devil in the Encores! revival of Damn Yankees!, you blew me away with your crack comic timing, your ease in front of a live audience, your easygoing singing voice, and even your piano playing. But, I thought, maybe that was just a one-shot, a lucky one-off. Besides, you were second billed (after another member of the tribe, Cheyenne Jackson).

In Promises, Promises, you’d have to sink or swim. As Chuck Baxter, a sad-sack low-level accountant in an insurance conglomerate headquartered in Manhattan, you’re in nearly every scene. And you deliver. Boy, do you deliver.

You have the same gift for physical comedy as on TV, but the huge stage of the Broadway Theater can encompass your pratfalls, your planned missteps in the wonderful dance routines, the mugging, the second glances, the hand gestures so much better than the small screen. Or the large one, for that matter.

I haven’t seen the TV movie Martin and Lewis, but I’ll make sure to catch it, because your manic comic talents are so reminiscent of Jerry Lewis - only you’re able to subdue them enough to let the charm come through.

As good as your performance is - and it is so very, very good - it wouldn’t mean much if it weren’t surrounded by a first-rate production. Anyone who has seen the classic 1960 Billy Wilder film The Apartment (which won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) will recognize the plot.

The plot takes off the truth universally recognized that a single man in possession of a centrally located Manhattan apartment (19 West 67th Street in this instance) will be befriended by higher-ups in his organization who need a trysting place for their office romances. (In the ’60s, career girls could have sex with a married man in an apartment but a no-tell motel was considered sleazy. Go back and read old issues of Cosmo if you’re confused.)

The master of light comedy, Neil Simon, gave the story of how you, the schlub with the digs, ended up in a triangle with a powerful executive and the girl you both loved his signature one-liners. Most of them totally land. Funny how a line like (about a couple necking at a Christmas party), "They must really be drunk. They’re married to each other" can seem "dated" to the Times reviewer but genuinely funny to me and the rest of the audience.

This revival, which was set in the mni-skirted, crazy-quilt world of 1968, wisely takes place instead in the Mad Men early ’60s. Aside from the fact that hot chorus boys look smokin’ in those skin-hugging Rat Pack shiny suits, skinny rep ties and Kennedy come-over haircuts, and the ladies look so nifty in tight skirt-suits or poodle skirts, the music fits the pre-Beatles era much better.

That the music is undeniably the weak link in this show is surprising, since it’s the only Broadway score written by the songwriting team of Bert Bacharach and Hal David. The most successful middle-of-the-road jazz-pop composers of the decade (along with Henry Mancini), Bacharach-David were responsible for an arm’s length of classic songs, most of them interpreted by their principal chanteuse, Dionne Warwick.

Unfortunately, Promises, Promises only has two numbers that rise above the mediocre, the title song and the lovely "I’ll Never Fall in Love Again." It’s a compliment to the show’s cast and especially the inventive direction and very most especially the choreography of Rob Ashford that the songs work as well as they do.

The choreography, in particular, is absolutely terrific - the perfect blend of Shindig-like disco gyrations and hyperkinetic-but-controlled Broadway razzmatazz. If there’s one number that stands out in such a dance-driven show, it’s got to be "She Likes Basketball," in which, Sean, you manage to lie flat on the stage floor all around you the men of the chorus leapfrog, their bodies entirely prone. It’s like looking down on the Flying Wallenda Brothers from on high.

It’s also true that your love interest, Kristin Chenoweth (who bears an uncanny resemble to Angie Dickinson in her Police Woman phase) is probably wrong for the role. In the film, Shirley Maclaine is a plain-Jane outer-borough gal stuck on the wrong guy and completely vulnerable.

Chenoweth, with her model’s body and beautiful face, is anything but plain. She’s not helped by her terrible mike, which makes her sound chirpy when she’s talking and like Eartha Kitt when she’s singing. But she is lovely, she’s got great pipes, and when she’s allowed a quiet moment, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar to "I’ll Never Fall in Love Again," she gives us a glimpse of a lonely, frightened girl.

It’s not hard to believe that Chenoweth would fall for Tony Goldwyn as a married executive A-1 heel, who manages to stand out in a cast full of handsome men. And who knew Goldwyn, a respected Broadway actor, could sing so well?

By universal agreement, the standout is Katie Finneran as a drunken bar slut. Every line out of her mouth elicits hysterical laughter from the audience. But it’s a two-person scene, and you, Sean, are as responsible for the laughs, especially the drunken dancing in the song "A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing."

Since I have never had the privilege of seeing Jerry Orbach in your part (nor will I, judging from the dearth of YouTube clips), I don’t have a standard of comparison. In a way, I’m glad. Your interpretation of Chuck can stand alone.

I don’t have much faith in Tony voters, but I’ll hold out a small ray of hope that you’ll be clutching an award in June. Meanwhile, everyone can enjoy the bubbly, silly, infectious confection Promises, Promises. It’s like eating a box of red cupcakes - minus the calories.

Promises, Promises is playing at the Broadway Theater, Broadway at West 53rd Street, in an open run. Call 212-239-6200 or go to the show’s website for tickets and information.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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