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Promises, Promises hits the Broadway stage

A disclaimer for all those curious to see if Emmy-winning sidekick Sean Hayes can hold his own on the Broadway stage: yes he can! He's not going to win a Grammy for his singing abilities, but his comedic genius and his can't-take-your-eyes-off-him effervescence certainly put the wind in the sails of this otherwise sinkable revival of Promises, Promises. And with Tony noms set to be released next week, he certainly has our vote!

After obsessing over Will & Grace for what feels like forever, and even more so after reading Sean's tactfully timed coming out in this month's issue of The Advocate, I jumped at the chance to see "Just Jack" in his Broadway debut. My wish came true this past Saturday, the day before the show's April 25 opening night.

In its first revival since its 1969 Tony-winning original run, Promises, Promises may have opened to mixed reviews, but critics seem to unanimously support Sean's uplifting performance. He dishes out stomach-cramping laughs in typical Jack fashion (I can't remember ever laughing that hard seated a red velvet chair). His acting prowess is undeniable, for he embodies C.C. "Chuck" Baxter's bumbling innocence in a convincingly desperate search for romantic and financial success.

The plot follows delightfully nerdy Chuck Baxter as he searches for love and promotion in a 60s-era Manhattan insurance company. Longing to be noticed by his superiors, Chuck offers up his apartment one night to a married supervisor in need of a place to, um, explore other options. He soon becomes very popular with other married coworkers and receives his dream promotion. Problems arise when we learn that the object of his affections, waitress Fran Kubelik (Kristen Chenoweth) of the company restaurant, has been peripherally involved with Baxter's new boss, J.D. Sheldrake (Tony Goldwyn). Drama ensues as Sheldrake requests access to the apartment and Chuck, afraid for the security of his job, is forced to comply. Wheel out the kitsch!

Aside from Sean's performance, Promises, Promises is a bit of a disappointment. It seems an unfinished puzzle, with all the pieces accounted for but no way of putting it all together. The comedic moments are hilarious (especially a bar scene starring the terrific Katie Finneran as Marge MacDougal), but any earned momentum is halted by painfully dry melodrama. The choreography is sharp and evocative, but it trips over a frustratingly unmemorable original score that often sounds more like background music than in-your-face Broadway extravaganza. Two additions to the original song list ("I Say a Little Prayer" and "A House Is Not a Home"), while both beautifully executed by Chenoweth, don't quite bring the show as up to date as revivers seem to hope.

The soundtrack, as of yet, is unavailable on iTunes, but you can hear Chenoweth singing "A House Is Not a Home" in this week's Glee mash-up of it and "One Less Bell to Answer." Wonderful choice, by the way, bringing back Chenoweth's washed-up April Rhodes just in time for this first week of performances.

And now, naturally, to Ms. Chenoweth. Glee and the Wicked soundtrack had me expecting big things from this darling of the Broadway stage, and she certainly delivers, cooing and belting away like it's nobody's business. But I can't help despising her character. As Fran, a caricatured damsel in distress, Chenoweth seems unfortunately miscast. Her brilliance goes unsaid, but she is too powerful and complex an actress for this distractingly one-sided role. The show is very much a sixties throwback, nicely evidenced in big wigs and an homage to barbershop quartets, but such a negatively stereotyped female lead is both disappointing and frustrating to see. In the second act, Fran attempts suicide because a man doesn't appreciate her; less than thirty seconds into the let's cheer her up number ("A Young Pretty Girl Like You") a huge smile returns to her face like nothing has happened.

While aspects of Promises, Promises were unsettling, this tribute to old-school Broadway is at times a breath of fresh air. The opening number ("Half As Big As Life"), featuring a dance with coat hangers and office chairs, certainly gets you in the Broadway spirit. The familiar "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" leaves you with a cute little tune to whistle as you exit the theatre, even as you bemoan the flippancy of the final few scenes.

All in all Promises, Promises is not what I hoped it would be. But for fans of our beloved "Jack," desperate to see Sean and cheer for him once again, the kitschy melodrama can be somewhat overlooked. You'll laugh until you cry. I promise.


Previously > DWST: Butch Up, Sally!

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Andrew Wailes