Friday, January 10, 2014

What's It All About—Bacharach Reimagined

Kyle Riabko. Photo: Joan Marcus
The subtitle of What's It All About?: Bacharach Reimagined says it all. Some of Bacharach's songs are such staples of pop culture that I can sing nearly every word from muscle memory. But growing up, the albums I owned were by Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Carole King. Bacharach was so ubiquitous on AM radio, you didn't need to buy his records. But hearing them now nearly always elicits an unwavering fondness and appreciation.

Kyle Riabko has rearranged nearly 30+ songs (most with lyrics by the remarkable lyricist Hal David) and strung them like newly-polished gems into a sleek, 90-minute show, at New York Theatre Workshop, directed by Steven Hoggett. Many arrangements, whittled down to acoustic guitar and voice, reveal the darting melodies and smart lyrics. (Video here.) Simply hearing new voices sing the familiar words fosters a new awareness of their appeal.

The imaginative set by Christine Jones (who designed the ingenious set for American Idiot, among others) serves as a sturdy metaphor for the project. The theater's walls and upstage wall are covered with old rugs; battered old sofas lie stage right and left, and hang from the upstage wall, bookending an avalanche of guitars and a cello (many of which are used throughout the show). Lamps with old-fashioned shades are scattered about the stage, or hang on the walls. It looks like a barn full of estate cast-offs. What might seem like old favorites—the most comfortable old couch, that fallback tune that always make you hum along—are revivified and given new purpose. Gradually, the props and detritus become illuminated from behind; the musty lampshades removed to reveal twinkling light bulbs, like a beautiful sky with northern lights and fireflies. The songs, meanwhile, shed years—and the baggage of Dionne or Herb or Aretha—to emerge anew. 

Front row: Nathaly Lopez, Laura Dreyfuss, Kyle Riabko. Back row: James Williams, James Nathan Hopkins, Daniel Woods, Daniel Bailen. 
Photo: Joan Marcus
Riabko, guitar at the ready, makes for a perfect troubadour. He leads off with a gorgeous rendition of "Anyone Who Had a Heart," its rhythms strongly demarcated, and the rest of the troupe joins in on various instruments. All sing capably, but the velvet-voiced Nathaly Lopez stands out with touching renditions of "Say a Little Prayer" and "Don't Make Me Over," and Laura Dreyfuss for "Walk on By" (marking the first use of two effective stage turntables) that segues into "A House is Not a Home," sung with simmering emotion by Riabko. In these thoughtful interpretations, we better grasp the bittersweetness in the lyrics, overshadowed in their Top 40 versions.

"Alfie" spawned the title and bits of it pop up throughout the show, primarily as an inquisitive rejoinder layered over another lyric. It serves as the tenuous narrative through-line navigating love, loss, and hope. A couple of tunes kick out the jambs—a surprisingly rockin' "Message to Michael," and the encore number, "What's New Pussycat?" (although you gotta watch Tom Jones in the original). Hoggett, in addition to sure handedly directing, provided the no-nonsense choreography, including strategic head tosses and foot stamping. The show is a celebration of a chapter in American pop culture that has for too long been shelved as kitsch or neutralized as mainstream. The reassessment is underway. (Extended through February 2.)

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