Long before Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys put the pop into pop musicals, a tuneful score by songsmiths Burt Bacharach and Hal David was inserted into a stage adaptation of Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s 1960 Oscar-winning motion picture, The Apartment. Wilder and Diamond’s screenplay really didn’t need any help. It crackled with wit in its bittersweet story about C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), an upwardly mobile but anonymous employee in a Manhattan insurance firm who lends out his apartment to his philandering superiors in hopes of currying favor with the firm’s personnel director. The 1960 motion picture won an Academy Award for Best Picture and it appeared that its conversion to a stage musical eight years later would be foolproof, especially when its score featured an array of tunes by one of the hottest songwriting teams of the decade.
The problem was that despite the script being retrofitted by Broadway legend Neil Simon, the result took a lot of the bite out of the original. (The film’s final, immortal line, “Shut up and deal,” is inexplicably replaced here with “Shut up and play cards.”) Gratefully, enough of the film’s original script was retained for the 1968 musical version, retitled Promises, Promises, which starred Jerry Orbach and ultimately ran for just over three years and 1,281 performances. The Group Rep’s current production, which opened December 9 at the Lonny Chapman Theatre in North Hollywood, is based on the 2010 revival, with a cast led by two impressive performances from Alec Reusch and Danica Waitley as its lovelorn main characters.
Reusch is exceedingly likable and engaging in the Lemmon role of C. C. Baxter, who, in the tradition of Eugene Jerome in Simon’s “Brighton Beach” trilogy, whimsically confides to the audience as he wrestles with his emotions. His conflict consists of balancing his infatuation with winsome cafeteria worker Fran Kubelik (played in the film by Shirley MacLaine and here by Waitley) with his desire to appease his duplicitous boss, Jeff Sheldrake, played with a casual cold-heartedness by Kevin Michael Moran.
Reusch and Waitley show palpable chemistry in their scenes together; Reusch is basically a less-confident incarnation of J. Pierrepont Finch, the enterprising mailroom boy of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and sings well, especially in his rendering of the show’s title song. Waitley is delectable and vulnerable as Fran, with just the right hint of melancholy. Waitley’s best moment comes on the song “Say a Little Prayer,” one of three breezy Bacharach/David hits in the show (“Prayer” was added for the 2010 revival). Their best moment comes when they sing of their respective romantic woes on “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”
Initially, Baxter’s apartment is lent out to a quartet of lascivious company managers before Sheldrake learns of the scheme and intimidates Baxter into reserving it for his own trysts with Fran. The quartet is kind of a creaky group, consisting of Ray Mainenti (Dobitch), Rob Schaumann (Vanderhof), Hisato Masuyama (Kirkeby), and Diane Linder (Eichelberger), who look uncomfortable going through the energetic paces of choreographer Masuyama’s dance moves. The vaunted “Turkey Lurkey” scene at the company Christmas party (originally designed by Michael Bennett) comes off the worst; it’s supposed to be a wild, bacchanalian romp but requires dancers with much greater ability than this clunky company employs and falls flatter than last week’s soufflé. Masuyama, however, can’t be faulted for lack of effort. He is, by far, the most effective of the four, utilizing over-exaggerated expressions in a hilariously over-the-top performance as Kirkeby. Substituting a woman in the role of Eichelberger is a major reach, believability-wise (to use a Baxter speech device); a middle-aged woman luring men for one-night stands just doesn’t work in this context and one wonders why this choice had to be made in the first place.
Stan Mazin has some good moments as Baxter’s crusty neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss, but is not as cuddly as the film version’s lovably Jewish Jack Kruschen and we’re not sure whether or not we should like him. His duet with Reusch, “A Young Pretty Girl Like You,” is one of the show’s misplaced sequences, a ludicrous attempt to add a “Put On a Happy Face” moment to the scene where Fran attempts suicide.
Stealing the show is the wonderful Jackie Shearn in a hysterical tour de farce as dim-witted bar floozy Marge MacDougall, who Baxter picks up and brings to his apartment for a meaningless and boozy one-night stand. Also effective is Kristina Reyes as Sheldrake’s spurned receptionist Miss Olson, who has vengeance on her mind after being dumped for flavor-of-the-month Fran.
Mareli Mitchel-Shields’ sparse set design includes some clever briefcase-shaped wall sconces, which flip down to reveal signs that help set scene locations. Briefcases are also used thematically in the choreography as well as with pop-up nameplates for office scenes.
Besides Reusch, Waitley, and Shearn, the main attraction for the show is Bacharach and David’s score, whose herky-jerky rhythms imply the stop-and-go traffic of Manhattan itself. Promises, Promises marked one of the first times non-Broadway songwriters were used on a score. Today, shows are produced in reverse, shoe-horning a story around existing songs, but in this show, the songs were fit into the story and then extracted to become stand-alone hits for the pair’s vocal muse, Dionne Warwick.
Although rarely staged, Promises, Promises, despite its flaws, remains an attractive alternative to the hit parade of musicals that are easy to produce but are seen way too often. Kudos to director Brent Beerman and The Group Rep for challenging audiences by bringing back this literate and fun musical farce.
Promises, Promises plays through January 15 at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd. in North Hollywood. For tickets, call (818) 763-5990.