Wednesday 14 July 2010

Promises, Promises, or, Sometimes Things Just Work Without Reason

At about 5pm this afternoon, after a rather frustrating day in an archive which shall remain nameless (as I need them to let me back in tomorrow) I decided to go and see what was on-sale at the TKTS booth in Times Square.  I was rather hoping that this might include The Addams Family, but it was not to be.  My second choice had been David Mamet's new play, Race, but as I made my way through the hordes, my eye was caught by a billboard for Promises, Promises, which prominently displayed Kristen Chenoweth's name, add the fact that seats were on at a 50% discount at the booth and there was no contest – especially as Broadway Grosses suggest I could turn up there practically any night in the next two weeks and get a discounted ticket for the Mamet.

Despite the presence of Chenoweth, undoubtedly a performer for whom the epithet “star” might have been coined – if by star you mean, as I do, a performer from whom one cannot take one's eyes every moment she is on stage – there are all sorts of reasons why this show really shouldn't work.  Let me give you just three.  One – parts of Sean Hayes's performance of the male lead where he seems to be under the delusion that he is still playing Jack in an episode of Will and Grace rather than the quite different character of Chuck Baxter.  Two – much of the ensemble choreography – this is one of those shows were there is something of a disjunction between movement and music.  Three – Kristin Chenoweth picking up a guitar which Sean Hayes just happens to have lying around in his apartment and launching into an almost unbearably twee rendention of I'll Never Fall in Love Again (a moment however blessedly enlivened in this evening's performance when Chenoweth caught her dressing gown on the tuning peg and both performers ended the number practically dissolved in hysterics).

And yet, despite these and other irritations this show has something, in some ways the other side of each of the disadvantages I've just listed.  For every moment when Hayes's campness is ruining the characterisation there are softer, underplayed moments that make you believe in him – I would say firmly that if he stopped playing to the gallery of Will and Grace fans who are undoubtedly attending this show because of that connection he could give a really striking performance.  Leaving aside the number previously mentioned, Chenoweth's performance is constantly heart-breaking – brittle, edgy, vulnerable.  She has three stunning ballads (Knowing When to Leave, Whoever You Are and, perhaps above all, A House is Not a Home) which are achingly sad.

More fundamentally, this is an intrinsically interesting musical which deserves a revival, even if it is not completely a success.  The book has plenty of good sharp lines in it.  While one can be forgiven for thinking at the beginning that this is material done more brightly by Frank Loesser in How to Succeed in Business or by Richard Morris, Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan in Thoroughly Modern Millie much of it is actually far closer to the world of Sweet Charity.  It is really quite unclear, or at least it was to me, whether there was going to be a happy ending.

Perhaps most of all the show reflects on a variety of aspects of love and desire, well beyond the standard musical theatre plot of boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy and girl encounter obstacles, boy and girl live happily ever after.  Instead, we have a stage littered with affairs, with women loving the wrong men even though they know they shouldn't and an innocent man almost succumbing to the seedy woman he meets in the bar out of simple despair.  This show has a lot to say about these things and it is not always comfortable viewing whatever the veneer of chorus lines and upbeat tempi.

The Where's Runnicles verdict?  This show is worth seeing – not just because you enjoyed Sean Hayes in Will and Grace, or because Kristin Chenoweth should be seen whatever she is doing (although the latter is still an excellent reason).  Rather, see this show because against all the odds it is a thought provoking and moving piece, and one not likely to come round again in a hurry.

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