Shortly before the show began, I hear a young woman behind me ask her father, "OK, fill me in on who Bacharach is." If you asked me who the current pop or hiphop star is, I probably would draw a blank, so I shouldn't be surprised at this young woman's question. Burt Bacharach is very much a product of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, associated particularly with the wonderful voice of Dionne Warwick. There was one Broadway musical, PROMISES PROMISES, and a lot of hit songs from movies, particularly "What's New, Pussycat" and "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head." I particularly love his zany score for the 1960s oddball version of CASINO ROYALE, including "The Look of Love." Bacharach's work looked back more than forward. It is't rock, though it definitely had a beat. Most of all, it had a unique sound.
What Kyle Riabko has done in WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT is to give Bacharach a contemporary sound. He and six versatile young singer-instrumentalists playing a variety of acoustic and electronic instruments (none of the brass and sax one associates with Bacharach), give these wonderful songs a new sound, sometimes folksy, sometimes rocking. However, the most masterful aspect of Riabko's work (with David Lane Seltzer) is to take two dozen or so Bacharach songs and turn them into a song cycle with a clear narrative of love, loss and recovery. There's no ironizing here. Riabko and his colleagues seem to love this music. Of course, the narrative Riabko gives these songs is possible because of the brilliance of Hal David's lyrics. I guess I never thought about David when I listened to Bacharach. Some of the lyrics are pop nonsense ("Do You Know the Way to San Jose"), but many of them are good storytelling. WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT simply wouldn't work without the excellence of David's lyrics. They make it possible to create a story out of these songs.
Yes, this is another "greatest hits" show, but it is a masterful one, even, surprisingly, deeply moving. Riabko's arrangements are varied and excellent. He and his fellow performers are virtuosic and charming. Steven Hoggett has created staging that is quite elaborate but seems simple and natural. The set design (Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis) first looks like a warehouse of grubby used furniture (some of the audience sit on old sofas onstage), but transforms into magical effects, enhanced by Japhy Weideman's imaginative lighting design, which cleverly uses dozens of table and floor lamps in addition to conventional theatrical lighting. The show begins with that low-tech look of New York Theatre Workshop productions, but becomes quite elaborate. It looks informal and improvised, but is really a brilliantly constructed theatre piece.
The final encore takes place out on 4th Street as the audience leaves the theatre. I won't give away the surprise, but it is the capstone of a delightful evening.
After seeing WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT, I'm going to revise my Top Ten List. I'd love to see it again.
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT: BACHARACH REIMAGINED. New York Theatre Workshop. December 30, 2013.