Musicals Promises Promises/ Paint Your Wagon The Bridewell/ Open Air Theatre, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"Things that we think chic, unique and quite adorable/ They say are odd and Sodom and Gomorrable." Sammy Cahn's spectacular lyric from Thoroughly Modern Millie has few rivals in the ingenuity department, but Hal David runs him close in Promises, Promises. "What do you get when you kiss a guy/ You get enough germs to catch pneumonia/ And when you do, he'll never phone ya'."

Alan Jay Lerner's lyrics for Paint Your Wagon, aren't in the same league, although anyone with the nerve to write a song entitled "Hand Me Down That Can O' Beans" deserves a medal for chutzpah. Neither does Frederick Loewe's music constitute his finest hour. Slipping hoof-effects into the orchestration will raise a grin but it's not enough to keep it there.

You'd never believe this tale of the 1853 California goldrush came from the men behind My Fair Lady. Much of that show's strength derives from the cast-iron structure of Shaw's play. It's genuinely theatrical story- telling, not an accusation to level at Paint Your Wagon. Nobody ever remembers the first thing about the plot. Company (1970) is famous for having broken the mould by being plotless but there are long stretches when it occurs to you that these guys beat them to it by nearly 20 years. Lerner's well- intentioned broad canvas of the harshness of life panning for gold never engages us. It's mildly diverting and there's a certain sense behind staging a show about the great outdoors, well, outdoors. Liz Izen makes a much- needed mountain out of a molehill; Chook Sabtain has lyrical charm in a role which makes cardboard look interesting and some perky choreography carries you along but you'd be advised to leave your brain at home.

The rumour that the Sixties musical Promises, Promises is impossibly dated suggests that certain people left their brains at home when they saw this. It's of its period, yes, but check out the tone. A show about sex, morality and office politics, it's based on the tart, cynical Billy Wilder movie The Apartment and was his present to Jack Lemmon for agreeing to do drag in Some Like It Hot. Some present. Neil Simon didn't so much rewrite the Oscar-winning screenplay as tailor it for the stage and with Burt Bacharach supplying the songs, what more could you ask for? Well, a more experienced cast and stronger staging. But musicals are expensive and no one on the fringe can afford experienced actors. Ashleigh Sendin sounds just the right note as the straight-talking secretary, but most of the others score higher for effort than achievement.

Undeterred, John JD Sheehan makes a damn good case for the show's revival and Stuart Pedlar's arrangements are terrific. As the energetic chorus wiggle their hips in gorgeous Sixties gear and blast out the equally gorgeous Bacharach chords to those jagged rhythms you'd never believe that the five excellent musicians are playing a score written for a 35-piece band. Go along, engage your brain, and imagine what a top-flight cast could do with material this good.

n 'Promises, Promises': To 10 Aug (0171-936 3456)

n 'Paint Your Wagon': To 2 Sept in rep (0171-486 2431)

Comments