‘Promises, Promises’ can’t overcome outdated lyrics, social mores at Blank Theatre

“Promises, Promises” is a musical at odds with itself. On the one hand, the Blank Theatre staging of 1968 tuner from composer Burt Bacharach, lyricist Hal David and book writer Neil Simon crackles with the singular brand of youthful bravado and irrepressible creativity that has defined Off-Loop theater for generations.

On the other hand, the musical directed by Danny Kapinos and running through Dec. 31 at Lincoln Park’s Greenhouse Theater Center isn’t just dated. It’s cringe-worthy. There are clunky yuks about suicide. There are lyrics where male businessmen give advice on how to bed their secretaries: “Chase her around the room until you win.” They aren’t played as satire. 

And in the second-act song “A Young Pretty Girl Like You,” a suicidal woman is told that she should literally plug her ears, cover her eyes and stop talking because the less she sees, hears,and says, the happier she will be. 

Outdated lyrics don’t plague 1960’s Oscar-winning drama “The Apartment,” which inspired “Promises, Promises.” In the classic film, director Billy Wilder uses the craven sexual shenanigans of white-collar men to explore the power dynamics women navigate in the workplace as well as the sexual hypocrisy of men who prize purity in their females.

Blank Theatre has a capable cast on the whole, but director Kapinos misses any opportunity to provide satire or social commentary. Instead of using Simon’s glib wit to provoke thoughts about sexuality or gender or power, Kapinos packages the 1968-set story as a campy rom-com.

The plot revolves around Chuck Baxter (Rory Schrobilgen) and his $86.50-a-month Manhattan apartment. In order to facilitate his climb up the corporate ladder, Baxter gains promotions by lending out his place to older married executives, all of whom are looking for an empty room (even a “truck or trailer will do,” they sing) where they can bed an endless rotation of secretaries and assistants. Baxter disapproves, but he takes the promotions and the salary bumps that come his way nonetheless. 

“Promises, Promises” is bearable largely due to its appealing romantic leads and choreographer Lauryn Solana Schmelzer outstanding work, which fills the Greenhouse’s shallow stage with chorus lines of movement that give the challenging space a breadth and a depth that don’t seem entirely possible. 

The musical unfolds under Baxter’s amiable, fourth-wall-breaking narration. The young wannabe exec finds the key to his success in the most literal fashion, his ascension up the corporate ladder spurred forward as he agrees to let senior execs take their conquests to his apartment for an hour, or maybe — again per the lyrics — just “20 minutes.” 

Schrobilgen quips through the dialogue with self-effacing ease. With a sweet tenor belt and puppyish energy, he ably depicts Baxter’s battle between cynicism and romanticism. 

As Baxter loses control of his home, company cafeteria worker Fran Kubelick (Brandy Miller) is unhappily entangled with corporate overlord J.D. Sheldrake (Craig Zeller), a character so skeevy you want to take a shower every time he shows up. 

Eventually, Fran and Baxter find their worlds intersecting, their separate realms of loneliness, stress and self-doubt merging into something resembling true friendship, and possibly romance. 

Fran’s character is wholly defined by the trouble she has with men, but Miller gives her humanity and depth with her crystalline rendition of the elegiac “Say a Little Prayer for Me.” When she duets with Schrobilgen on “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” their harmonies spiral and climb, the aching resolve of the number failing to obscure the sparks and the connection between Fran and Baxter.

They bring the same sting and sympatico to the bittersweet “What Do You Get When You Fall in Love,” making the duet a musical highlight. 

Beyond the leads, Kapinos’ ensemble is uneven. Craig Zeller’s J.D. Sheldrake has a wooden, sluggish delivery that renders his scenes lethargic. As Baxter’s neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss, Kingsley Day lights up the stage with a cantankerousness that’s both instantly relatable and comically misguided. 

Scenic designer Spencer Donovan leaves the stage bare but for a backdrop with a couple of doors on either end, giving Schmelzer’s choreography the room to really shine. 

And to be sure, much of the solo and duet work in Blank’s production is delivered with a delicate, beautiful finesse. It’s a shame the music is trapped in such an egregiously outmoded show. 

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