San Francisco Playhouse
Set in the 1960s during the holidays, the revival of Promises, Promises at The San Francisco Playhouse is the perfect way to ring in the New Year. In the program notes, Artistic Director Bill English writes:
The popular TV show Mad Men reminded us of how backward our culture was in the ’60s and how many of the social problems we had then persist today. The objectification of women, particularly in the business world, and the ‘success at all costs’ mentality that often pervades corporate culture are roadblocks to a compassionate community.
Mad Men: The Musical? Well, not quite. While both set in the world of Madison Avenue ad men, a major difference is that Mad Men creator Matt Weiner looks at the era through a 21st Century lens. Neil Simon, who adapted Promises, Promises from The Apartment (1960) was writing about the 1960s in real-time. Not better necessarily but certainly less filtered and tinged with irony. Furthermore, although it’s classic movie fan heresy, I find Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s The Apartment overrated and not particularly funny. The musical version retains the characters and storyline but adding Burt Bacharach’s songs and score turns it into an effervescent delight.
In this scaled back production, the dance numbers don’t have the glitz of, say, what you might see on the Tony Awards but the advantage is the intimacy of the smaller house. The staging and pop art set design are also ingenious.
Leads Jeffrey Brian Adams as Chuck Baxter and Monique Hafen as Fran Kubelik deliver, as actors and singers. The self-effacing, bumbing junior exec Baxter is more Woody Allen than Jack Lemmon. Subdued until late in the show, local Silicon Valley boy Adams shines on “She Likes Basketball” and the title song, made famous by the late Jerry Orbach. The lovely Hafen returns to the Playhouse after an award-winning turn in Camelot where many of us first discovered her. Costume designer Tatjana Genser outfits Fran as an extremely stylish office cafeteria worker, in trench coats and high boots. Hafen plays her as smart but, at least initially, trapped in her times. Her singing style is well suited to the Bacharach/David songs (musical direction by David Möschler and Kevin Rowland). The emotional climax is “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” where Fran strums an acoustic guitar while serenading an unconvinced Baxter.
Baxter thinks he’s finally gotten lucky with the sweet, funny Marge MacDougall (Corrine Proctor). Proctor and veteran actor Ray Reinhardt as the cantankerous neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss, give the best comic moments of the evening. Johnny Moreno goes for Tom Hanks-like phony sincerity to brighten the manipulating boss, Jeff Sheldrake. By comparison, Mad Men‘s Don Draper seems utterly saintly. Also outstanding are the hard-working female chorus whose vocals give the show that Bacharach zing. Not to be outdone, their male counterparts have the best dance routines (choreography by Kimberly Richards). After all, this is San Francisco.