December 11, 2013 5:36 pm

What’s It All About?, New York Theatre Workshop – review

This cracking show features reconfigured versions of the hits of Burt Bacharach and Hal David
'What's It All About?'©Joan Marcus

'What's It All About?'

The subtitle of this music-based evening is “Bacharach Reimagined”. In that task, Kyle Riabko, who is credited with the arrangements, musical direction and co-conception, has succeeded crackingly well. He has split apart the 1960s-heavy catalogue of Burt Bacharach/Hal David hits – “Alfie,” “I Say a Little Prayer” – and revealed that the songs are sturdy enough to withstand the most radical of remakings. Without a central story to bind them, however, the numbers cumulatively feel stretched: the 90-minute evening might have been more satisfying at 75.

It would be easy also to observe that What’s It All About? would play better in a pub-like setting than in one of off-Broadway’s premier theatres. But such a venue could not offer the visual glories here. We would not sit in a space whose walls are plastered with print rugs and carpets, magically transporting us to Bacharach and David’s tuneful land of pain and heartache. And we would have to forego Japhy Weideman’s spectacular lighting, a mixture of rock-star spots for the kick-out moments and warm, undergraduate lamps for the more intimate ones.

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Of those high-energy-rock moments I wish there had been more. By the time we get to an amped-up version of “Message to Michael” – a 1966 hit associated, as many of the songs here, with the invisibly presiding goddess Dionne Warwick – the production’s pulse has begun to slow. The director, Steven Hoggett, who did the movement for Black Watch and Peter and the Starcatcher, doesn’t have a narrative or dialogue to engage us: we watch song after song, often blended. He brings the seven singer/musicians together in a series of clever kaleidoscopic configurations, aided by turntables.

Hoggett choreographed the successful stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning film Once at this same theatre. That production, though, had a central love story to propel it, bolstering its commercial prospects. In this instance we must rely solely on the pleasure of hearing familiar tunes reconfigured, and the terrific young cast interpreting them.

Often, these elements are sufficient. Hearing a reggae beat under “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” is a kick. And the bluesy singing of the performers – Daniel Balien, Laura Dreyfuss, James Nathan Hopkins, Nathaly Lopez, James Williams, Daniel Woods – is a delight.


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