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Theater Review

What Does 'World' Need Now? A Fresh Perspective

The Broadway-bound musical revue misses the magic of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

April 04, 1998|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

SAN DIEGO — When Burt Bacharach and Hal David ruled the Earth, their songs filled the airwaves and our aching hearts and private dramas. This was, roughly, from 1963 to 1973. Then, there was silence.

Anyone who's been paying attention lately will have noticed that Bacharach's emotion-drenched, percolating rhythms are sounding fresh and irresistible again, translated by such disparate fans as Elvis Costello, McCoy Tyner and young bands like the British Oasis and L.A.'s the Negro Problem. In fact, next week Varese Sarabande releases a new compilation, "The Burt Bacharach Album," just as the new Broadway-bound revue "What the World Needs Now . . . A Musical Fable," opened Thursday night at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

The trouble is, everyone seems to know that Bacharach and David are fresh again, except for Gillian Lynne, the British director, choreographer and co-conceiver of "World." Tethered firmly to cliches of yesteryear, "World" only emphasizes the square factor of the Bacharach-David oeuvre. Some 40-odd numbers are showcased within Lynne's cloying and repetitive choreography and a book as stale as a biscuit wrapped in Dick Clark's bell bottoms.

"World" centers on a couple--Jennifer (Sutton Foster) and Alfie (Lewis Cleale), named for a song so old that Jennifer has never heard of it. Like the Michael Caine character in the movie that inspired the song, Alfie has trouble committing to women. Unlike the Caine character, that is the sum total of his personality. Jennifer and Alfie meet in a club, where she asks him, "So, what's your sign?" The level of their discourse, as written by Kenny Solms, goes downhill from there.

Alfie can't commit--never mind why. He gets palpitations when Jennifer sings the word "forever." His hesitations allow for a scenario in which they can indulge in richly textured, charming and soaring pop tunes, songs like, "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," "A House Is Not a Home," "Don't Make Me Over" and, of course, "Alfie." They have best friends, the nerdy but lovable Arnie (John Bolton) and the wisecracking Liz (Paula Newsome), who also fall in love. Here's the complication--in this case it's Liz who can't commit. Arnie and Liz get to sing "Wives and Lovers" and "Walk On By." Alfie's Other Woman (Alicia Irving) mournfully belts perhaps the greatest Bacharach-David song ever, "Make It Easy on Yourself."

But before she embarks on the song, the Other Woman says to Alfie, "I know you've been hurting. I've been there too. It isn't easy." These wan pronouncements seem woefully unincubated next to the full-blown emotionality of the songs. One wonders why a book was needed at all.

As Jennifer, Foster makes you sit up and take notice. She seems like a filly who's just getting used to having wondrous long legs. She offers a shimmering sense of humor and hurt. Her clear, sharp voice is colored nicely by unaffected, primary responses to the lyrics. As Liz, Newsome also generates heat and spunk, with a blissful smile and doe eyes that look remarkably like the young Judy Garland's. Unfortunately, Bolton's Arnie and Cleale's Alfie get straight-jacketed in cliches. Of the ensemble, Jack Donahue alone seems to be authentically funny.

Lynne has no light touch in the humor department. Best-known as the choreographer for "Cats" and "Phantom of the Opera" (though her bio makes it look as if she also directed those shows on Broadway), her dances heavily favor balletic extensions and leaps with little variation. Her ensemble over-articulates every little drama, moony look or joke she gives them to play. Comic numbers are particularly flat. A trio of women prancing merrily to "What's New Pussycat," which includes the punch line of one woman smelling her own armpit, is a disaster.

Harold Wheeler outfits the melodies in a traditional-sounding Broadway orchestration, which works, except that the band itself sounds skimpy. A three-woman chorus (Misty Cotton, Monica Pege and Alicia Irving) stands straight and sings well, though their function and their look (part Supremes, part Greek chorus) does not seem thought through.

Though the set is fun, design genius Bob Crowley does not deliver his best work here. The stage is a jumbled New York, seen from several angles at once. The Statue of Liberty looks as if it's going to dive over the Brooklyn Bridge; the Prometheus at Rockefeller Center juts out over the descending steps of the Guggenheim; and the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings lie on their sides. The set works well in the night scenes, when everything glows, particularly the street that stakes straight up one wall, filled with 3-D yellow taxi cabs. During the dances you may find yourself assessing traffic patterns--some of the cabs have on their brake lights and others don't--or worse, wanting to hail one.

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