London. The 1960s and 1970s hit songs that Burt Bacharach wrote with his late lyricist, Hal David, are most often heard now in elevators and hotel lobbies, but a musical that opened in London this week lifts them right back into the stratosphere. “What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined” has turned the tiny Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre in south London into a happy place, where the audience wastes no time getting into the spirit by singing and clapping along with the exuberant young seven-member cast.
“Do You Know the Way to San Jose?,”, “Walk on By,” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” and “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me” haven’t sounded this fresh, or drawn such attention to David’s often artful and clever lyrics, since they were hits for the likes of Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, Cilla Black and B.J. Thomas decades ago. The question in the title is the signature line from Bacharach and David’s theme song for the 1966 Michael Caine movie “Alfie,” about a London cad who uses women. The question — minus the mention of Alfie — pops up repeatedly, even in other songs, as something of a “what is the meaning of life” trope, but that’s as profound as things get.
The show, set to run through Sept. 5, is the brainchild of its music director and lead performer, Kyle Riabko. The program notes say he sold the now 87-year-old Bacharach on the idea of a rethink of his songs some years ago, when Riabko sang demos of new arrangements to the composer at a Los Angeles studio.
The resulting 90-minute tune fest was an off-Broadway hit. It ran for more than a year at the New York Theater Workshop, won several awards and was extended twice before closing in February of last year.
Riabko, an almost alarmingly fresh-faced Canadian with the energy of a young Pete Townshend, reprises his role as lead singer and guitarist, this time with a cast that draws on talent from both sides of the Atlantic.
Anastacia McCleskey, the troupe’s strongest soul-Motown voice, brings down the house with a searing version of Warwick’s “Don’t Make Me Over”. She hails from Nashville while guitarist-singer Daniel Bailen, who was in the off-Broadway cast, is from New York City.
The British-based talent includes singer-guitarist Greg Coulson, keyboardist-vocalist Renato Paris and singer-percussionist James Williams. Singer and instrumentalist Stephanie McKeon, who sings a wistful “Walk On By”, is from Ireland.
The stage in the production directed by Steven Hoggett is set to resemble a ramshackle urban apartment. Chairs, sofas and a variety of table lamps are dotted about, suggesting the type of environment where Bachararach and David would have worked to come up with the tunes and lyrics that made them into a hit factory. That gives license for Riabko and his cast to, as the title has it, “reimagine” Bachararach, as if the songs are being dreamt up and performed for the first time. Other than that, there is no attempt to provide a backstory, or any plot at all. What you see and hear is what you get – performers who weren’t even born when Bacharach and David wrote these songs making them sound as if they were written yesterday.
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