KPBS AIRDATE: APRIL 8, 1998
What would happen if Ally McBeal and Clare Danes went on a May-December double-date with Burt Bacharach and Hal David? The result would be “My So-Called Musical,” an angst-ridden, retro-revue sentimentally obsessed with love and relationship.
Bacharach may be experiencing a revival (with recordings from artists as disparate as McCoy Tyner, Elvis Costello and Hooverphonic), but his work with lyricist Hal David still sounds decidedly seventies; is smacks of bubble-gum and crackles with pop-corn.
(MUSIC, under and up: “What the World Needs Now”)
Gillian Lynne and Kenny Solms, the co-creators of the world premiere, “What the World Needs Now,” doggedly insist that it’s a book musical. But it’s really a glorified revue, sporting almost 35 Bacharach-David songs. Some are mindlessly unforgettable (like “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”), some are pseudo-philosophical (like “What’s It All About, Alfie?”) and some are downright reactionary (“Wives and Lovers” and “What’s New Pussycat?”). But some real gems sparkle through, like “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” “One Less Bell to Answer” and “Anyone Who Had a Heart.”
Director-choreographer Lynne has done everything possible to make this material timely; her leading lady (Sutton Foster) looks, moves, thinks, acts and shoves her hair back behind her ears just like Ally McBeal, and she also has a worldlier, wiser black friend (Paula Newsome, who looks startlingly like a young Oprah). Then there are the two leading men: Lewis Cleale as the macho, womanizing Alfie, and John Bolton as the nerdy-but-nice Arnie. One boy finds, gets and leaves the girl. The other boy finds, gets and is left by the girl. How very nineties; at least half of every couple dreads Commitment. The lead duo is cute, but not quite charismatic; the secondary pair is more comical, cynical and credible.
Meanwhile, midst all the whiny love-lament, a talented corps of dancers leaps endlessly across the stage in ever-skimpier costumes. The choreography may resemble recycled Bob Fosse, but it is sexy at times, and even includes (periodically) the requisite hip-ness of gay couples. Lynne obviously favors one lead dancer (the cloying/annoying Fabio-lookalike, Jonathan Sharp) and she uses him to excess — bare chest and all. But there aren’t enough musicals with dance any more, and this one needs all the help it can get. The premise and the songs just can’t stand on their own. And speaking of just standing there, who on earth are the three hovering harpies, a drab, gray-clad Greek Chorus that wafts through, singing backup?
I really liked the set, which literally turns New York on its ear. That design wizard, Bob Crowley, has Lady Liberty leaning perilously over the Brooklyn Bridge, while Rockefeller Center’s golden Prometheus is suspended above the ribbons of light that outline the Guggenheim. The twin towers are erect, but the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings are lying down on the job, and four lanes of bumper-to-bumper yellow cabs point skyward. It all illuminates beautifully, especially in the night scenes.
(MUSIC, Under and up: “Wishin’ and Hopin’)
So, there’s a lot to look at, when you get tired of the Bitchin’ and Moanin’ of these lovesick, one-dimensional characters and the syrup of the songs. The best stuff is the little song-snippets that tie the meager plot together. There are also some cute, gender-bending takes on “What’s New Pussycat?” (sung by three male-mugging women) and “Don’t Make Me Over” (much more pointed when implored by a man).
All in all, it’s a valiant, colorful, energetic effort to make some pleasant pop tunes into a Broadway-bound musical. But despite its evocative set and already-scheduled June opening, I doubt it’ll take New York by storm.
(MUSIC: under and up: “What’s It All About, Alfie?”)
It may have “The Look of Love,” but really, Alfie, “What’s It all about?”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.