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Theater Reviews

New Company Lives Up to 'Promises' With First Show

May 16, 1997|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A new theater company seldom fulfills promises with its first production, but Reprise! has done so with "Promises, Promises" at Freud Playhouse on the UCLA campus.

Reprise! is based on the theory that a semi-staged musical revival can generate sparks, even if the actors carry scripts and the band occupies much of the stage. Big-name stars will agree to appear, the theory goes, because the rehearsals and the engagement are so brief that they don't interfere with more lucrative gigs.

Well, sure enough, Jason Alexander took time away from his "Seinfeld" negotiating to star in "Promises, Promises." As the schlep accountant who loans his Manhattan flat to his bosses for their extramarital romps, he looks properly self-effacing, yet he's a likable dreamer, and he sings and dances with considerable charisma. He's supported by a number of other well-known actors--and the show sparkles.

Although Reprise! is subtitled "Broadway's Best in Concert," the word "concert" seems unduly modest. If it conveys images of formally dressed performers lined up in mostly stationary positions, think again. This musical moves, and "formal" is hardly how it looks.

It begins with a quintet of women in glitzy miniskirts sauntering onto the stage and throwing themselves into '60s-style shimmying. Yes, we're back in 1968, when the show premiered--but we're seeing the mainstream corporate culture of that era, not the counterculture. Or is it really the '50s, which is when "The Apartment," from which Neil Simon adapted this script, was written? Some of the attitudes look '50s--but no one did the go-go until the '60s.

*

The Burt Bacharach/Hal David score is pure '60s pop. The original production pioneered the electronic enhancement of its sound in order to resemble a studio recording, complete with pit singers, Reprise! producing artistic director Marcia Seligson noted in the program. She has followed suit, except that here there's no pit. The 10-piece band is on a platform at stage center; the female "pit singers" stay backstage.

This stage is big enough, however, that the band doesn't get in the way. Whether this will be true in productions that would seem to require a fuller orchestra ("Finian's Rainbow" is scheduled next) remains to be seen. But here there's room for one and all. There isn't much room for a detailed set, but Jane Reisman's lighting helps fill in the gaps.

The band is subdivided by a path through which actors make many of their entrances and exits. And occasionally the band joins in the action. Musical director Peter Matz serves as the silent bartender, leaning over a railing to offer drinks to Alexander and Jean Smart. He exchanges a vigorous high-five with Alexander. The other band members don Santa hats during the Christmas party scene, and holiday lights adorn their platform.

Meanwhile, in front of the platform, the blocking hardly looks restricted. Alexander even manages a few surprisingly acrobatic flips over and around a sofa. The dancers stretch and kick with abandon, even during the virtually inexplicable "Turkey Lurkey Time" that closes the first act. The fluid motion engineered by director Stuart Ross and choreographer Adam Shankman slows down only for a few introspective moments, such as the score's most famous and uncharacteristically placid number, "I'll Never Fall in Love Again."

Scripts are sometimes camouflaged as props--not an implausible stretch in the office where much of the show is set. Music stands that support scripts pose as typewriter stands. And even when the scripts are just scripts, the cast hardly seems to notice them--so neither does the audience. No one blew any lines on opening night, and the actors explored the nuances, not just the lines.

But then this is quite a cast. As the troubled love object, the Audrey Hepburn-esque Karen Fineman sings with controlled passion, and she and the tart-tongued Linda Hart get a driving duet, "You've Got It All Wrong," that wasn't in the original show (it was added for a similar concert revival in New York). Alan Thicke mixes the necessary oiliness of his cad character with the good looks and strong voice that make his seductive powers credible. A high-pitched and fluttery Jean Smart is an adorable drinking partner for the much shorter Alexander. Barney Martin employs his patented comic timing.

With pros like these, the Reprise! promises will be easy to keep.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

* "Promises, Promises," Freud Playhouse, northeast corner of UCLA campus, near Hilgard and Sunset, West L.A. Tonight-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday, 2 p.m. $35-$40. (310) 825-2101. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

Jason Alexander: Chuck Baxter

Alan Thicke: J.D. Sheldrake

Karen Fineman: Fran Kubelik

Charlie Robinson: Mr. Dobitch

Lise Simms: Sylvia Gilhooley, Waitress

Paul Kreppel: Mr. Kirkeby

Kristie Canavan: Ginger Wong

Alan Rachins: Mr. Eichelberger

Anne Fletcher: Vivien Della Hoya

Barney Martin: Dr. Dreyfuss

Fred Willard: Mr. Vanderhof

Jill Matson: Dentist's Nurse, Miss Polansky

Kyme: Company Nurse

Jeff Broadhurst: Company Doctor, Attendant, Karl Kubelik

Linda Hart: Peggy Olson

Jean Smart: Marge MacDougall

A Reprise! production. Book by Neil Simon, based on "The Apartment" screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. Music by Burt Bacharach. Lyrics by Hal David. Directed by Stuart Ross. Musical director Peter Matz. Set by Neil Peter Jampolis. Lighting by Jane Reisman. Sound by Jon Gottlieb. Choreographed by Adam Shankman. Costumes by Frannie Lee.

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