Broadway Blog Matthew Wexler spends an evening with Burt Bacharach interpreted for a new generation.
It is nearly impossible not to be mesmerized Kyle Riabko, the 26-year-old musician/actor who sprang onto the Broadway stage in Spring Awakening and the revival of Hair. You can get up close and personal with Riabko in What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined, playing at New York Theatre Workshop through January 5. Riabko co-conceived of this well-spun tribute to pop composer Burt Bacharach and also wrote the musical arrangements. It is a guilty pleasure so sweet your teeth may ache by the end, but peppered with enough brilliant musicianship that it’s hard not to be captivated.
Riabko offers an informal introduction before the evening begins: his encounter with Bacharach, their ensuing friendship, and a cryptic phone message from the eight-time Grammy winner upon listening to Riabko’s new arrangements that simply says, “Let’s talk.” Then the evening is off to a whirligig ride of vocals, percussive riffs, guitar jam sessions and 20-something wistfulness.
Those 20-somethings — a band of seven musician/singers handpicked by Riabko (with a little help from casting agents Jim Carnahan and Jillian Cimini) — are a melting pot that brings life to the Bacharach songbook for a new generation. The evening carries on seamlessly, from “I Say a Little Prayer” and “That’s What Friends Are For” to ballads including “A House Is Not A Home” and “Don’t Make Me Over.” It should be noted that lyricist Hal David’s contribution (although credited) should not fly under the radar. One of Bacharach’s longtime collaborators, he has more than 30 gold records to his name and gives a voice to much of the song list.
Creatively directed by Steven Hoggett (The Glass Menagerie, Once, Peter and the Starcatcher), the company moves with precision through Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis’s overworked set, which consists of an explosive number of throw rugs and lamps. Look hard and you might find Stevie Nicks in the corner, wondering how all those people got into her living room. Hoggett’s signature movement — pedestrian yet lyrical and so effective in Once — works here as well as an organic extension of the storytelling.
Lighting designer Japhy Weideman and sound designer Clive Goodwin also deliver the goods, creating a dynamic space that transforms throughout the evening as Riabko and company tap in to Bacharach’s playful and soaring melodies. It is a well-polished production, almost to a fault. Performed without an intermission, your mind may wander, thinking you’ve tuned in to a Bacharach-inspired episode of American Idol or The Voice. Which begs the question: does this fulfill New York Theatre Workshop’s mission to “ensuring the robust and compelling presence of the artist in our society”?
Had Riabko not mentioned the intention of finding relevance in the Bacharach songbook for a new generation, I may not have given much thought to the East Village icons of past generations such as Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna and how this production — from a theater company that gave us Rent — feels saccharine at times. It’s more of a riff than a criticism, and one that I discussed over tea after the show, which is another indication of how the neighborhood’s cultural landscape has changed.
What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined is easily digestible and charmingly realized. While it may feel a bit out of place downtown, it’s still a testament that “What the World Needs Now is Love.”
What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East Fourth Street
Through January 5