by Nita Congress · December 6, 2013
New Musicals: Nita Congress looks at What’s It All About: Bacharach Reimagined at the New York Theatre Workshop
Remember how Mary Martin in Peter Pan responds to Captain Hook’s query “Pan, who and what art thou?” She says “I am youth. I am joy. I am freedom!” Well, that’s the way I felt walking out of What’s It All About: Bacharach Reimagined. In fact, I can’t recall coming out of a show in recent years (save Bill Irwin and David Shiner’s Old Hats) so happy and uplifted, so carefree and delighted. And I was not alone: everyone around me was buzzing—not just to their companions, but to total strangers—about how much they’d enjoyed this show, and listing all the people they knew who have to come see it.
That is quite a remarkable feat! I’ll tell you here how I think it was achieved. But first, I should explain what What’s It All About is, well, all about.
It’s the music of Burt Bacharach—arguably, the mainstream soundtrack of the sixties and seventies. But this is most emphatically not in any wise a jukebox musical. This is a fresh, enthusiastic reinterpretation of those standards. So we get rock, hip-hop, blues, and jazz infused variations on Bacharach’s music. And it totally works because the music is familiar, beloved, and—most important—really good. This show does not let you wallow in easy nostalgia. Instead, it thrills and excites you with the strength and depth of the music—and the lyrics—by how well it lends itself to different tempos, rhythms, syncopations, orchestrations; how arrestingly different songs can be made to blend in and around each other, to inform and enhance one to the next melodically, thematically, narratively.
In the course of ninety intermissionless minutes, we are treated to, by my count, some thirty-three songs. You know them: “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” “Message to Michael,” “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Arthur’s Theme.” But you don’t know them as they are sung and staged here. So there is a steel guitar version of “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself,” a gospel-tinged “There’s Always Something There to Remind Me” that evoked Mick Jagger, a heartbreakingly torchy “Don’t Make Me Over,” and a smoky, beat-driven “The Look of Love.”
Every song is beautifully realized, both musically and dramatically. The infectiously winning, endlessly talented young cast—Daniel Bailen, Laura Dreyfuss, James Nathan Hopkins, Nathaly Lopez, James Williams, and Daniel Woods, led by co-creator/arranger/musical director/vocalist/guitarist Kyle Riabko—puts over every song gracefully, graciously, and engagingly. The audience is seamlessly led through cycles of songs winding around a recurring motif of “What’s It All About?” A question that is answered in the show’s eleven o’clock number—“Alfie,” of course—in a soul-stirringly simple and gentle rendition by the gifted Riabko.
The talent and ingenuity evinced onstage are more than matched by the supporting creative efforts offstage. First and foremost, this show has possibly the best sound design I have ever experienced. Designer Clive Goodwin presents no overamplified muddle here: every sound could be traced to its source, every syllable was perfectly enunciated, every nuance faithfully captured. Similarly, director Steven Hoggett focuses the movement and flow of the evening meticulously. There are charming moments of synchronized or successive action, as sound and movement together thrillingly ripple from one player to the next. The show doesn’t have much in the way of sets, but scenic designers Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis make sure that what is there is exceedingly well used, notably a highly versatile big chair and a beautiful revolving stage. And the lighting by Japhy Weideman gorgeously sets moods and underscores rhythms.
So what’s it all about? It’s about love. Love of craft, love of performance, love of music—and a longing, so well realized, to bring this love palpably home to an audience.