This summer’s Blank Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along was pure magic, one of the finest musical productions of any size I have ever had the good fortune to experience. Could lightning strike again with Blank’s production of Promises, Promises, the late-1960s musical with an all-star pedigree? Short answer: Sort of, but with some reservations.
Promises, Promises is based on the multiple Oscar-winning 1960 romantic drama about selling out and moral degradation, The Apartment, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray. The rather lighter musical version, with a book by Neil Simon, music by Burt Bacharach and lyrics by Bacharach’s frequent collaborator Hal David, was every bit as successful as the movie, and also spawned two big hits for Dionne Warwick, the title song and the ridiculously catchy “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” (Those who complain that contemporary musicals no longer have hummable tunes can point to this song as an example of the way things used to be.)
Promises, Promises is the story of a naive and rather feckless young junior executive at an insurance firm who has utterly compromised his principles by allowing the company’s randy higher-ups to use his small apartment for their flings with the company’s pretty young secretaries, receptionists and elevator operators, in exchange for their promises to boost him a rung or two up the corporate ladder. It doesn’t end well for anyone.
The junior executive, Chuck Baxter, is portrayed by Rory Schrobilgen, and in some ways, he’s perfect for the role, radiating naïveté, credulousness and utterly unfounded hopefulness. Like so many other young men of his type, the only love he’s ever experienced is of the unrequited variety. Brandy Miller plays Fran Kubelik, a lovely young waitress from the office cafeteria and the overly idealized object of his affection. Baxter has no idea that Fran has made some even more dire moral choices than he has. Coming to terms with these choices is what drives the story of Promises, Promises, effervesced along the way by Bacharach’s sparkling score. Lauryn Solana Schmelzer’s choreography, particularly in the ultra-lively “Turkey Lurkey Time” dance, set at a company Christmas party, is also a highlight, as is Baxter’s next-door neighbor, a rather creaky but kindhearted old doctor who helps Chuck and Fran out in a moment of great distress. Played by Kingsley Day, the doctor — who wrongly assumes that all of the audible carnality coming through his apartment wall is generated by Chuck himself — is a droll delight.
The Blank Theatre production, directed by Danny Kapinos with musical direction by Aaron Kaplan and scenic design by Spencer Donavan, is never less than entertaining and frequently affecting. But the Neil Simon book suffers in comparison to the original screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, lacking the latter’s gravitas. Additionally, the musical has been “Waspified,” with much of the classic Jewish humor of Wilder’s and Diamond’s screenplay whitewashed, particularly in the person of the doctor and his affectionate busybody of a wife (“such a racket I heard in your place, maybe you had burglars?”)
The musical also tends to blur together the personalities of the various senior executives that use Chuck’s apartment for their 45-minute assignations before heading home to the suburbs and their wives and kids. Only J.D. Sheldrake, the company’s personnel director and its most active adulterer, emerges as a distinct individual, and, as portrayed by Craig Zeller, is a bit short on the arrogant and prevaricating power that Fred MacMurray embodied so memorably in the movie version.
Although Schrobilgen effectively portrays Chuck Baxter’s conflicted innocence, he lacks Jack Lemmon’s trademark neuroticism, his hangdog persona, and in particular the very slight suggestion of griminess that Lemmon brought to the role. Chuck Baxter is, after all, not only an ambitious naïf but also a manipulative and pimp-adjacent corporate manipulator. Schrobilgen’s lighter portrayal makes Chuck simpler, less memorably conflicted, and far more two-dimensional.
Promises, Promises is a show that is very much a product of its time. Much about the musical is dated, certainly not the “abandoning one’s moral principles” part, but, in particular, the idea of doing so in service to a soulless corporate conglomerate and the unfeeling bastards who populate its corporate suites. It’s hard to imagine very many young people today willingly sitting on a park bench in the rain while their apartment, and the person they love, are both being used by their corporate superior, merely for the promise of a promotion to Assistant Manager of Something or Other.
But the notion of unrequited love is timeless, and so too is the disillusionment felt by men and women alike when they feel taken for granted or are confronted with infidelity. At its heart, this is about the promises we make, and those we break, not least the marriage vows that every one of the senior executives treat as nothing more than disposable fluff.
At the loveliest moment of the musical, when Brandy Miller sings “What Do You Get When You Fall in Love,” she has the entire audience nodding along in agreement with the question — “not much,” everyone seems to be thinking, and yet, as both Chuck and Fran themselves eventually decide, “it’s still worth trying again.”
The weakness of Simon’s book — exacerbated by the fact that this is a musical to begin with, rather than a straight play — tends to give the whole enterprise an inappropriately lightweight feel, when you really stop and think about the seaminess of the subject matter. That reservation aside, this is a nicely mounted revival of a classic musical that is, for those who have seen previous revivals, well worth “trying again.”
Presented by Blank Theatre Company at Promises, Promises” running from December 1st-30th at Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Dates: December 1 – 30, 2023
Tickets: $15 – $35 available at blanktheatrecompany.org.