What do you get when you watch this show?/ – A screenplay rewritten by Neil Simon,/Half-polished tunes and laboured rhymin':/I-I-I'll never watch this show aga-a-ain...
Sunset Boulevard is hardly the first movie to be turned into a stage musical; in fact, it is not even the first Billy Wilder movie to be so treated. Promises, Promises is based on Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's screenplay for The Apartment; you know, the one where insurance clerk Jack Lemmon angles for promotion by letting executives use his flat for assignations, only to find that his boss Fred McMurray is stringing along Lemmon's unrequited innamorata Shirley MacLaine – that one.
Indeed, this 1968 show is based so closely upon the screenplay that virtually all the major gags are Wilder & Diamond's rather than originals by the stage writer – surprising, given that the book is by Neil Simon. Even the mighty songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David come frequent croppers, indulging in ill-advised experiments in switching time signatures and/or metre. Introductions to numbers repeatedly promise Bacharach gems – specifically, under Stuart Pedlar's musical direction, those jaunty piano rhythms lead us at least half a dozen times to expect an imminent enquiry as to whether we know the way to San José – only to subside into run-of-the-mill stage-musical fare; the 22-carat exception, "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" half-way through the second act, is too little, too late.
John J.D. Sheehan's production for The Manhattan Project falls down in every important respect... almost literally so on the press night, with a doorknob and a telephone lead making breaks for freedom, props not set onstage or dropped with a crash behind the scenes, and hesitant lighting changes. The (mysteriously uncredited) set design is over-fussy at the best of times, leading to unnecessarily long and sometimes botched scene-changes. Fatally, Sheehan attempts to make the show go with a Sixties swing, but either he or his cast are unable to get to grips with period camp. His female chorus, frugging in poorly drilled near-unison, even achieves the almost impossible feat of fudging a party-time parody of girl singing groups.
Marcus Allen Cooper as Chuck grins a lot at the audience, overplaying every laugh-line with dire consequences; Vanessa Cross makes an anodyne Fran, and Murray Woodfield is cold and detached even by the standards of his character, the cold, detached J.D. Sheldrake. Consistent comic skills are shown only by a couple of supporting actors, Joyce Springer as bar-room pick-up Marge MacDougall and an enjoyably grumpy Harry Dickman as Chuck's acerbic neighbour Dr Dreyfuss.
The show's title is an apt one: seldom does a production promise so much and deliver so little. It may even stop the current Burt Bacharach revival dead in its tracks. What do you get when you watch this show?/ – Some overplayed gags and self-conscious prancin';/You can't call it actin', can't call it dancin':/I-I-I'll never watch this show aga-a-ain...
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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