Everyone knows the songs of Burt Bacharach. They are as much the standards of classy twentieth century popular music as are those of Lennon and McCartney. Unlike that latter couple though, Bacharach’s songs are drawn from many sources – with some from stage shows and films as well as those simply written for the top recording artists of the day. Plenty of performers continue to cover Lennon/McCartney songs but rarely do they capture that classic, original sweet and sour Beatles sound. Bacharach’s songs, on the other hand, lend themselves splendidly to wider re-interpretation, as What’s It All About? so deftly shows.
So what’s What’s It All About about I hear you ask? The clue is in the subtitle – Bacharach Reimagined. The programme tells us how five years ago Kyle Riabko met Burt Bacharach in a Santa Monica recording studio to sing some demos of new Bacharach material. What happened to the new material isn’t stated, but what definitely did happen was that on a second meeting, Riabko and friends performed some of Bacharach’s classics in front of the man himself, but rearranged in a way that the songs had never been publicly heard before. Rocked up; pared back; songs usually sung by a man sung by a woman, and vice versa. After months of trying different styles and songs, Bacharach and his late lyricist partner Hal David approved Riabko’s venture and a year and a half ago What’s It All About opened at the New York Theatre Workshop, chalking up a significant Off-Broadway success.
And there’s nowhere better for an Off-Broadway success to hit the UK than the Menier Chocolate Factory, and the new production of the show is a revelation in so many ways. As always with the Menier, when you enter the auditorium, you never know how they will have configured the seating and the staging. From memory, it’s most similar to how they staged Candide, with a wide but relatively shallow bank of seats in front of the stage, and some seating to the sides. Amusingly, a few of the audience sit in armchairs and sofas actually on the stage, at the side, which I would imagine would give them a very vivid sensation of being part of the action. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were perfectly happy with our regular middle of Row A slot.
The stage is a mess – but a brilliant one. Christine Jones and Brett J Banakis have created a melange of musical instruments and scattered them on every available surface; up walls, on shelves, up pillars, suspended in the air. The floor is bedecked with a pattern of mismatched rugs, cleverly assembled together so as not to get in the way of the very effective revolving stage effects – not only a centre stage revolves, but an outer one too – you may need sea-sickness tablets at times. Above all, the stage is littered with lamps. Big standard lamps, little bulbs and all manner of individual lighting in between. It looks absolutely magical. There are even two sofas suspended against the back wall, high in the air, which at first Mrs C and I thought were where some of the more intrepid audience members were perched (particularly as their occupants were sneakily taking a look at the programme before the show started). But no, it’s all part of the performance. The whole effect is to give you a really dynamic staging that suggests the intimacy of your own living room as well as the showbizzyness of a live stage with live musicians, and a range of instruments and microphone stands. It really draws you in. I was already enjoying the show immensely even before it started.
Kyle Riabko has assembled a group of seven relatively unknown musicians (including himself) to sing the songs of Burt Bacharach. No story; no narrative thread. This is not one of those shows where the music accompanies a lookback at the artist’s career; it’s the nearest thing I’ve seen as a musical that is like a traditional concert. This is not Side by Side by Bacharach; if anything, it’s more Burt Bacharach is Alive and Well and Living in New York, except that there is no attempt to act out the meanings of any of his songs, other than the sheer vocal interpretation of the performers.
One does have a tendency to associate Bacharach songs with their original artistes. This Guy’s in Love with You is inextricably linked to Herb Alpert. I Say a Little Prayer is distinctively Aretha Franklin. What’s New Pussycat couldn’t be anyone other than Tom Jones. And to be fair, those three crowd-pleasers were performed not too unlike those original well-loved recordings. Virtually everything else they did, however, was completely reinvented. You know how irritating it is when musicians cover a favourite song of yours and they hardly change the original – what’s the point of that? None of that here – these reinterpretations will really get you reconsidering the meanings of these old songs. Moreover, you won’t find any of that “cover version and it’s nothing like as good as the original” syndrome (yes, Madonna, I’m looking at you [American Pie] and you can’t afford to be smug either Westlife [Father and Son]). These new arrangments really wake you up and shake you up.
It was a poignant coincidence that we saw this show on the same day that Cilla Black died. In the UK Cilla is unbreakably linked with Anyone Who Had a Heart (in the US I believe it’s linked with Dionne Warwick). For us, those are the standard performances of that song and anything else is just a pretender. Cue Kyle Riabko, opening the show with a stunning version – high on drama, minimalistic on instrumentation, and, above all, sung by a man. The rest of the cast all join in, creating an astonishing and heartfelt start to the show. Later on, Mr Riabko again takes on Cilla with Alfie, another quiet, deliberately under-orchestrated, incredibly plaintive version, that stops you in your tracks and makes you think again about what the song means; indeed, what’s it all about.
But there really is so much to enjoy in this show. Parts of songs get chopped and changed around; lyrics from one song might appear in another, the chorus of one song gets integrated into another, all bringing a smile to your face and genuine laughter as you realise what they’re doing and how effectively it all works together. And then you have that absolute pleasure of hearing an old favourite, maybe for the first time in a while, out of context and totally shaken up. Like Message to Michael (which I always think of as Adam Faith’s Message to Martha) performed as a real hard rock anthem, or two guys together singing I’ll Never Fall in Love Again, musically consoling each other regarding their bad luck with women.
And the performers are really fantastic. Kyle Riabko is definitely at the heart of it all; a tall, imposing, likeable, rocky guy who welcomes us all in to the show and encourages us to enjoy it in whatever way we want. And boy, does he love a guitar solo! There is a brilliant drummer and percussionist in the form of James Williams, creating momentous rhythms out of old wooden boxes and other ephemera, just as much as from proper instruments. Greg Coulson is another guitarist who exudes enjoyment and virtuosity, and really feeds off the audience reaction. Anastacia McCleskey has a fantastic voice and great stage presence, bringing both power and delicacy to her performance, and Stephanie McKeon also has stunning vocals with something of the young Stevie Nicks about her. There was great “bad boy” guitar work from Daniel Bailen and fantastic contributions from keyboard whizzkid Renato Paris who seemed to be loving every minute. I thought his Trains and Boats and Planes was almost painfully exquisite.
This is a show that makes you think twice on so many levels. Not only about the songs of Bacharach and David, of course, but also about what further possibilities there are in the genre of musical theatre. Not only about how you can form a group of lesser known musicians and create a sensational sound, but also about how you can devise a show without a narrative that nevertheless keeps you on tenterhooks for the next section. I’ll be honest with you, gentle reader; when I heard that this was to be the Menier’s summer offering, I pretty much decided to give it a miss. Something about it didn’t appeal. It was only the excited tweets that appeared after its first preview that made me change my mind. I’m so glad I did.
A word of warning though. If you were thinking of taking your elderly granny to see it – as she might well be of the generation that were amongst the original Bacharach fans – make sure she’s the type that doesn’t mind a bit of raucous rock too. There were some elderly ladies leaving the theatre after it was all over who were complaining that it really wasn’t their cup of tea – they were obviously hoping for a more refined and genteel experience. This show isn’t genteel or refined. It’s raw, it’s heartfelt, it’s emotional. It has rough edges. It strips back earlier, prettier versions of these songs and exposes their vulnerable core. If you’re up for that challenge, you’ll love it.