I grew up on the music of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, often whether I knew it or not, singing along to scat-like sounds of Dionne Warwick in “Do You Know the Way to San José?” and la-la-la-la-ing to the Carpenters’ “Close to You,” and bopping about to “What’s New Pussycat,” and many, many others. They populated the Top 40 back then, often moving from film soundtracks to the radio and back again. I remember all of Hal David’s lyrics—they come back to me as though they’ve never left, riding on that wave of Bacharach’s wide open sound.
Actor-musician Kyle Riabko (Spring Awakening and Hair) conceived What’s It All About (though David Lane Seltzer is also credited) with Bacharach’s blessing. The sweet, low-key, 90-minute performance begins with Riabko telling the audience how he grew up listening to his mom sing him these songs, and returned to them as an adult, challenging himself to make them relevant to his own generation. He called Bacharach and asked to play him the new arrangements, and relates how nervous he was to sing Bacharach’s songs for the iconic composer. Riabko ends his curtain speech by playing a voicemail Bacharach left for him, which Riabko interprets as giving his blessing for the project.
The wide, deep stage of New York Theatre Workshop is set like a 1970s rec room, with comfortable chairs and sofas scattered about, some even lining the walls, where old blankets and quilts hang as decor. (The evocative scenic design is by Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis.) Tickets are sold for on-stage seats, so a handful of spectators become part of the scene, almost as though they’re proud family members watching these kids perform after dinner. Each side of the back wall is dressed with a sofa that hangs 10 or so feet from the ground, on which people who turn out to be cast members lounge before the show begins.
Upstage center is decorated with a collision of guitars and basses, upside down, sideways, and otherwise strung together in a big collage of instruments. The stage walls and floor are peppered with standing lamps, table lamps, and sconces of various shapes, sizes, and shades, all of which work not to light the set, exactly, but to create the homey atmosphere in which the evening plays out.
Although it takes a moment to distinguish them from the on-stage audience, the six band members are pre-set around the space, chatting with one another, looking at their phones, and gazing out into the audience until Riabko finishes his speech and invites them down to introduce them. Daniel Bailen, Laura Dreyfuss, James Nathan Hopkins, Nathaly Lopez, James Williams, and Daniel Woods all appear to be 20-somethings like Riabko; two are women and three appear to be of color. They wear their hair shaggy and large, and their clothes (designed by Andrea Lauer) are eclectic, almost Godspell-like mash-ups of styles and eras, tastes and statements. The actors look contemporary and not, just as the music, too, sounds both nostalgic and relevant.
All six cast members, in addition to Riabko, who stars, play instruments and sing, although I was disappointed that the two women played mostly “girl” instruments like the tambourine. Dreyfuss strums a guitar at one point, but wholly without the conviction with which all the men play. While their fellow band members shift among guitars and basses, or play the keyboard and piano, Dreyfuss and Lopez do the girl back-up singer thing and mostly add rhythm.
The men are directed to be athletic and rigorous as they sing and play; I was disappointed to see the women given relatively little physically musical chores to do.
Both of them, though, have some of the best solos in the show. Lopez offers a vigorous rendition of Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer for You” and Dreyfuss is moving and understated with “Walk on By.” Riabko takes many of the other solos. His arrangements mostly slow the songs down, stretching their lyrics into something more soulful and reflective. “What’s it All About,” for example, echoes around the stage many times as a kind of question before “Alfie” is sung in full. A few numbers are revved up to rock out.
What’s It All About isn’t a jukebox musical, but a revue, for which Riabko writes arrangements that interweave phrases from various songs throughout the evening. They echo and repeat and foreshadow the full songs, working thematically to make the evening more of a rumination not just on Bacharach, but on what it means to reimagine him and his sound and his collaborators’ lyrics in 2013. Sometimes, you just hear a snippet of a song before it’s gone; sometimes, a song repeats; and sometimes, it’s left in the archive, an aural tease of memory. Director Steven Hoggett (who choreographed the musical Once and provided an abstracted movement vocabulary for The Glass Menagerie, both directed by John Tiffany) also brings his signature style to the choreography. Occasionally, the cast kicks off a few synchronized steps that look almost like line dances. And Hoggett keeps the short production moving, with a double revolve that sometimes spins very quickly, and directs the cast to whisk the standing mics into and out of position with great whooshes of movement.
Japhy Weideman’s gorgeous lighting design gives the production a rock concert feel, as cones of light silhouette the cast from the wings, then alternate with more subtle, practical light thrown by all those on-stage lamps. The lighting vocabulary moves from rock arena to folk club, and goes a long way toward keeping the production varied and emotionally textured.
The whole production is very liquid and very loving. The cast seem to be having a wonderful time, and their affection for one another is either genuine or very well performed. They also seem to adore Riabko, their band-leader, and sometimes mouth the words to the songs as he sings.
I was moved, not only by the nostalgia of the lyrics and the melodies, but by watching seven young people find so much emotion in these old songs, and by listening to them render Bacharach so beautifully.
Just let those women do a little more!
The Feminist Spectator
What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined, New York Theatre Workshop, extended through February 2, 2014, though I won’t be surprised if it’s extended again or moves to a larger uptown house, as did Once.