In “What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined” at the New York Theatre Workshop through February 2, Kyle Riabko, who is 26 , leads a half dozen other good-looking singer-musicians in their 20’s in performing 90 minutes of songs by Burt Bacharach, who is 85 years old and wrote dozens of hit songs in the 1960s, including Raindrops Keeping Falling on My Head, Do You Know The Way to San Jose, and Alfie, with the lyrics: What’s it all about, Alfie?/Is it just for the moment we live?
Burt Bacharach conjures up the word groovy: finger-snapping Dionne Warwick (the singer of many of his hits), swinging actress Angie Dickinson (his first wife), men wearing turtlenecks, bopping and bobbing their heads. And, maybe also like the word groovy, his music seems a little…contained to a particular period.
Riabko performed on Broadway in Spring Awakening when he was just a teenager, and then went on to portray Claude in the Broadway revival of Hair – two of the hippest shows on Broadway in the past half century, and the ones (not coincidentally) with the most youthful demographic on the other side of Annie. He also has been the opening act for John Mayer and Maroon 5, among others.
In Riabko’s arrangements of Bacharach’s songs, guitars replace the original violins and horns, lyrics (mostly by Hal David, Bacharach’s long-time writing partner) are cropped or dropped, and, more often than not, bubbly turns into mopey, light longing into deep angst. The elegance of the martini era gives way to a celebration of grunge. Andrea Lauer’s costumes are mix-and-match East Village thrift shop, Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis’s set is littered with big floppy couches, lots of little lamps with identical lampshades, a few seats for audience members, walls covered with various carpets, the back wall a staircase disguised as a sculpture festooned with guitars. It’s surely meant to evoke the atmosphere of a smoky club in the nether regions of downtown or Brooklyn, but feels more as if we’re in the suburban basement of somebody with a taste for hipster nostalgia.
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Riabko is being trumpeted (although not so bluntly) as the youth who will put fresh, youthful bottoms in theater seats now occupied by the white-haired and dying out, and he does seem the ideal liaison. He embodies, on the one hand, the sexy long-haired surfer dude who gets all the chicks – director Steven Hoggett’s choreography includes a sensuous number where Laura Dreyfuss is sandwiched between Riabko and his guitar, so that they are performing, dancing and hugging all at the same time. (I included this as one of my ten magical moments of 2013) Yet he also comes off as ideally wholesome, a boy who grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to become somebody any parent would love; he honors his elders, telling the audience what Bacharach songs his mother sang to him as a child, and talking about how nervous he was to meet a “legend” like Bacharach. He says this during an opening speech that contain the only spoken words during what is in effect a concert. Its aim, Riabko informs us, is to “interpret this body of music from the perspective of my generation.”
My description of the show may sound as if I did not enjoy “What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined.” But I did. If somebody had taken such liberties in arranging the songs, say, of Lennon and McCartney, there might have been a riot – or at least a lot of head-holding. But, while there is no denying that the Bacharach-David catalogue is made up of well-crafted pop tunes, there were only a few covers in the show that grated. Most songs were not beloved or even recognizable enough to elicit protest. (And most remaining Bacharach fans are surely too laid–back to want to protest anyway.) Steven Hoggett (Once, Peter and the Starcatcher) directs the attractive, talented cast in ways that suggest how your straightforward stand-and-strum concerts could be choreographed in a more pleasing theatrical style. Yes, Japhy Weideman’s lighting is often blue, rock-arena flashy, but the performers sometimes rotate on Lazy Susans, or dash up the staircase, or hang out on an elevated couch, or — offering the perspective of a new generation — take selfies with smart phones. Yes, this is Glee territory, but much smarter, more inventive…and live!
The evening I saw this show, I looked out at an audience that in age split the difference between Riabko and Bacharach – a normal theater crowd, in other words, that skewed more towards the songwriter’s demographics than the performers’. Let’s hope in the new year that attitudes change, in the theater community and in the rest of the world, and the urge to tag people by the year they were born; group them into generations; and treat one group as preferable over another, is recognized for what it is — age discrimination.
What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined
New York Theatre Workshop
Music by Burt Bacharach; lyrics by Hal David and others; musical arrangements by Kyle Riabko
Directed and choreographed by Steven Hoggett; scenic design by Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis; costume design by Andrea Lauer; lighting design by Japhy Weideman; sound design by Clive Goodwin; music coordinator, John Miller;
Cast: Daniel Bailen, Laura Dreyfuss, James Nathan Hopkins, Nathaly Lopez, Kyle Riabko, James Williams and Daniel Woods.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
What’s It All About is scheduled to run through February 2
Update: The show has been extended through February 16