Nathaly Lopez, Laura Dreyfuss, Kyle Riabko (front row)
James Williams, James Nathan Hopkins, Daniel Woods, Daniel Bailen (back row)
in What's It All About? Bacharach Reimagined
(©Eric Ray Davidson)
Think Burt Bacharach and words like "hip," "bold," and "exhilarating" are not among the first that come to mind. Yet each of these adjectives is perfectly suited toward What's It All About? Bacharach Reimagined, the splendid new spin through the composer's songbook which has just opened at New York Theatre Workshop.
Co-conceived by Kyle Riabko and David Lane Seltzer, the piece takes tunes like "Say a Little Prayer," "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," and "Anyone Who Had a Heart," as well as the title song, and fashions them through a prism of contemporary musicianship. Riabko, wearing a second hat as musical arranger, gives each of the tunes an indie rock sound that makes them seem so fresh that they might be coming out of some studio over in Williamsburg today.
This sense of the company - which, along with the smooth-throated and expert guitarist Riabko as headliner, includes Daniel Bailen, Laura Dreyfuss, James Nathan Hopkins, Nathaly Lopez, James Williams, and Daniel Woods - taking possession of the tunes is nowhere more apparent than when they all gather onto an overstuffed armchair center stage to sing "Close to You." Their eyes sparkle as they sing to Riabko's soft accompaniment, and suddenly, ardent young love suffuses the theater. It very well could be the sweetest and most gently joyful moment one sees on stage all season.
Elsewhere the simplicity of Riabko's musical approach - and the astuteness of Steven Hoggett's direction - enhances the melancholy and loneliness that is also so intrinsic to Bacharach's songs. As Dreyfuss sings "Walk on By" in clarion tones with a deadened haunted expression almost frozen on her face, she wanders through a mismatched assemblage of chairs, and the sense of her revisiting every space that she and her ex ever shared becomes painfully palpable.
Lopez' intensely full-throated delivery of "Don't Make Me Over" carries a similar weight. Its effectiveness only increased by the fact that she barely moves during the entirety of the song, turning it into a riveting internal monologue of sadness and recrimination.
Not everything in What's It All About? has such darkness. The company mashes up "Wishin' + Hopin'," "Reach Out for Me," and "What the World Needs Now Is Love" in an exuberant percussive section filled with freewheeling glee. Similarly, Hopkins and Woods bring just the right amount of knowing irony to "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," which, after all, includes the lyric "So for at least until tomorrow/I’ll, never fall in love again," and while the guys sing, Dreyfuss steps out of the shadows upstage to snap a picture on her phone,, as if to say, "Just in case you dudes forget, this is going on Instagram right now."
Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis' scenic design ably mirrors this contemporary spirit. They have lined the entirety of the theater with various carpets, fabrics, and other sound-absorbing materials so that it looks like the place is some haphazardly created recording space.
Fascinatingly, though, these materials, as well as the pyramid of instruments and playback devices that sits center stage, also serve as a terrific visual metaphor for the creative process Riabko has gone through with the music: it's like some grand archeological dig through the every space in which (and the device on which) Bacharach's music has been played for decades has been crammed into the theater.
It's an environment that's sumptuously lit by Japhy Weideman, whose design can cut through the space with precision, wrap it in a comfy glow (thanks to a dozen or so table and floor lamps that dot the stage), or wash the space with luxurious color. The artful - and seeming artlessness - of it all is also impressively abetted by sound designer Clive Goodwin, whose work makes it seem as if there isn't one microphone, amplifier or speaker around for miles.
For their encore, Riabko and company deliver a giddily creepy take on one of Bacharach's most unusual songs, "What's New Pussycat?," as if to say "Yeah, this one is a head-scratcher, isn't it?" It's an approach that's certainly smile-inducing. It also illustrates just how marvelously in tune these artists are with Bacharach's work. They know it's a song that audiences will want to hear, but it's not very "pc" for 21st century listeners. So, they have fun with it, and simply make it their own.
---- Andy Propst
What's It All About? Bacharach Reimagined plays at New York Theatre Workshop (79 East 4 Street). For more information and tickets, visit: nytw.org.