Flashback Friday - - *What's It All About?*, 2014
It's Burt Bacharach's 89th birthday today! Happy birthday, dear Burt. I am CRAZY for some Burt, you might already know this about me. I'm flashing back to an inventive and sob-inducing show I saw downtown a few years ago, *What's It All About?* I'll precede my review with a gem, Burt himself singing "Alfie."
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The New York Theatre Workshop has produced a show called *What’s It All About?: Bacharach Reimagined*. The concept is by Kyle Riabko, who also did the arrangements and is the lead performer. I knew I had to see it, because I revere Burt Bacharach and Hal David above all other songwriters. That sentence gives me pause: more than Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart? Yes. More than them.
The show is in a smallish theater on East 4th Street. I don’t think I’d been there before, it’s a nice space. I had a seat in the first row, and was so glad I did, I felt like I was right there with the performers. The stage was scattered with chairs and couches and rugs, and rugs and chairs and couches pinned up on the walls. It was cozy. There are seven people in the cast, five guys and two girls. None of them appears to be over 35, many of them are under 30. They’re all so cute and talented and earnest and appealing!
Riabko started the show singing “Anyone who had a heart”, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. I was instantly in tears and remained in tears for much of the beginning of the show. The songs are so beautiful, and it was thrilling to hear them performed with such passion, and in brand new arrangements. The arrangements had nothing in common with the Bacharach originals (there wasn’t a trumpet in sight), and they really showed that the songs hold up on their own, they’re not at all tied to their original recordings.
There was no band - - the eight performers played all the instruments and sang, often with delicious close harmonies (and an equally delicious blend). Everything was body mic-ed and amplified, but it was never too loud or synthetic-sounding. The arrangements used the ensemble in the most inventive and flexible way, sometimes using just a handful of instruments, sometimes all of them, sometimes just a couple. And many different instruments - - one song had a delightful mandolin solo, and everyone played a percussion instrument at some point in the show. Speaking of, about an hour into the show I got teary when I noticed the bass drum in the drum set - - it had a photo of Marlene Dietrich. Bacharach was her arranger and bandleader early in his career. Aw!
A few high points: one of the girls gave a slow, show-stopping performance of “Don’t make me over”, the first song that Bacharach and David wrote for Dionne Warwick. And the other girl brought a chilling intensity to “Walk on by”. The staging of this number was so dramatic - - she was sitting in a chair, and the other members of the ensemble placed some empty chairs around her, one of them with a guy’s flannel shirt draped over it. The turntable started turning very slowly, and she sang the song sitting in her chair, looking at the other empty chairs, the chair with the shirt in particular. It conveyed the empty, lost heart of the song.
I said that I was in tears through a lot of the show. I saved the biggest tears for the end of the show, when Riabko sang "Alfie". I'm not talking about the well-mannered tears you might have in key moments of *Rosenkavalier*. I'm talking about hot tears streaming down the face. I was pressing my fingernails into the palms of my hands to prevent myself from letting out the loud, audible sobs that were trapped in my throat.
What was it about this song that did such a number on me? For one thing, it was set up so beautifully in the show. It was preceded by a rockin' song for most of the cast, and then a light came up on Riabko sitting on a couch midway up the back wall, and sang the song just with an acoustic guitar. The other reason: Bacharach singles this out as possibly his greatest song, and I agree with him. It has such a sincere message of opening yourself up to love - - and Riabko inserted a few seconds of silence before the final section. I’ll take it from the bridge:
And sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie
I know there’s something much more
Something even non-believers can believe in
I believe in love, Alfie
Et cetera. I’m in tears just remembering it, it was total absolute stage magic, that pause!