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Review: WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT? Rocks Out On Bacharach

As any student of musical theatre will tell you, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum wasn't getting any laughs during out of town previews until Stephen Sondheim replaced its opening song with "Comedy Tonight," which clearly stated the point of the evening. And Fiddler On The Roof was far from a hit until Bock and Harnick penned "Tradition," which spelled out the theme of the musical in no uncertain terms.

I don't know how the earliest preview audiences watching Kyle Riabko's What's It All About?: Bacharach Reimagined reacted to the 90 minute evening of Burt Bacharach songs stripped of their 60s-70s easy listening gloss and arranged in garage band grunginess, but I had the advantage of seeing something they did not see. Before playing a note of music, the scruffy 25-year-old Riabko walked on stage, introduced himself, and filled us in on the history of the project, telling us exactly what he was trying to accomplish.

It was only the sixth time the show had opened with his improvised intro explaining how he got to love the music of Bert Bacharach and, as a young musician, enjoyed playing his songs in the styles of his own musical contemporaries; not to "improve" them, but simply as one artist adapting the work of another into the musical language of his generation. He spoke of how nervous he was presenting a demo to the composer himself, and gleefully let us hear the voice mail he received from Bacharach that let him know he approved of the project. (Bacharach's primary lyricist, Hal David, also gave Riabko a thumbs up.)

And this little speech not only introduced us to the show's co-conceiver (with David Lane Seltzer) and music arranger as a nice guy, but fully established that this is not just another tribute revue honoring a great popular composer. There are no film clips of classic performances or nostalgic photos projected on the walls. The point here is it to see how a youthful company, all in their early 20s, might discover for themselves a classic old musical style and translate it into something more organic for them. A bit like watching Shakespeare performed in modern dress and acted with contemporary inflections.

Scenic designers Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis cover the stage, and even the walls of the auditorium, with a collage of mismatched rugs and lamps. A dozen or so audience members are seated onstage on battered old couches. The visual makes you a welcomed guest in some suburban basement where kids hang out on the weekends playing their music. Costume designer Andrea Lauer dresses the seven member cast casually, touching on hipster, boho, indie and hip-hop styles and director Steven Hoggett's staging has a simple sense of playfulness, enhanced by some beautiful moments bringing out the emotional depth of the lyrics. The whole effect exudes the feeling that you've just wandered into someone's improvised jam session where anything can happen.

Riabko handles most of the male lead vocals while on guitar; very emo rocker with a silly side (His "What's New, Pussycat?" is a scream.) The bulk of the remaining lead vocals are by pop/folkie Laura Dreyfuss (who tears your heart out with a wispy "Walk On By") and soulster Nathaly Lopez, a standout with richly textured renditions of "Don't Make Me Over" and "Say A Little Prayer."

Daniel Bahlen (bass), James Nathan Hopkins (keyboards), James Williams (percussion) and Daniel Woods (guitar) are also featured singers and everyone partakes in an eclectic assortment of instruments, including a mandolin, ukuleles, a xylophone and a cajón.

"The Look of Love," "A House Is Not A Home," "San Jose," "Close To You," "What The World Needs Now," "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" and more blend into each other in musical collages that combine hard rock, acoustic, soul, psychedelic and other contemporary variations. Snippets of lyrics ("When you get caught between the moon and New York City..." "Raindrops keep falling on my head...") embellish other songs at key moments and the title phrase gets repeated as a leitmotif until the final minutes when Riabko, sitting far upstage and gently strumming a folk guitar, sings a quiet and loving "Alfie."

With no dramatic arc to propel the evening, Hoggett does a wonderful job of keeping the stage pictures interesting. A particular striking moment appears when Riabko begins playing and singing "Making Love" with Dreyfuss closely clinging between him and his guitar.

The fresh and creative arrangements never seem to stray far from the original intentions of the music and lyrics. The contrast in styles is never presented as a joke, but as heartfelt and respectful celebrations of the material in different voices.

As is the case with most of New York's non-profit theatres, the audience at New York Theatre Workshop on the evening I attended was filled with older patrons, most of whom would remember these songs when they were first released. The warm and appreciative response all night, and the enthusiasm expressed at the post-performance talkback, clearly indicated that the kids lived up to their promises, promises.

Photos by Eric Ray Davidson: Top: Kyle Riabko; Bottom: (Front Row) Nathaly Lopez, Laura Dreyfuss and Kyle Riabko (Back Row) James Williams, James Nathan Hopkins, Daniel Woods and Daniel Bailen.

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