Ten years ago, a smarmy Burt Bacharach revue called The Look of Love icked its way to Broadway and closed amid much derision. Critics said that Bacharach deserved better than paint-by-numbers illustrations of the familiar standards, but I doubted he would ever get it. Though he was an incomparable pop hit-maker for 30 years, from the late fifties through the late eighties, the hits were odd both in and out of context. The context was partly the period in which they arose, the way they seemed to beat a sketchy path around the rock revolution. The context was also, unavoidably, Dionne Warwick, for whom so many of the songs were written. Warwick was a superb vocalist, making lovely sounds, but emotion was not her strength; while singing Bacharach’s discursive melodies, she always seemed to be thinking about her grocery list or wondering where she left her purse.Still, and possibly for that reason, no one else could have made so many of them hits. Her perfectly smooth technique sanded the edges off songs that, upon fuller inspection, turned out to be extremely unorthodox in their musical construction, at least for the pop market. They remain so now, which is why I wouldn’t have thought any attempt to resurrect them, especially in a theatrical context, could succeed where The Look of Love failed. I was wrong; a new Bacharach revue called What’s It All About? has not only figured out how to make the songs work onstage but how to make them sing with deep feeling that matches their surprising content. It’s a revelation — and it’s fantastic.
The show’s subtitle is “Bacharach Reimagined,” and “reimagined” is not too strong a word for what the show’s moving force, Kyle Riabko, has done to the 30 or so songs (or parts of songs) he’s pulled from the catalog. Nor for the way the director Steven Hoggett has staged them. Your first clue to the change is Christine Jones’s delicious set, which is not the slick California bachelor pad you may imagine as the native locale for the Bacharach lifestyle. There are no hot tubs or martini shakers here. Instead, New York Theater Workshop’s stage has been turned into a kind of rec room, heaped with tatty old furniture, musical instruments, crocheted area rugs, vintage curios (including 28 members of the audience) and stoop-sale lamps. (The exquisite lighting is by Japhy Weideman.) When the seven performers show up, they prove to be the opposite of been-there sophisticates. They seem like high schoolers piling into a basement to smoke pot and soliloquize about love as seen from the vantage point of its first disappointments.