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First Nighter: Bacharach Revue Awkwardly Asks 'What's It All About?' -- Steve Tyrell Smoothly Answers

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By far the finest moment in What's It All About? Bacharach Reimagined, now at New York Theatre Workshop, occurs when performer-arranger Kyle Riabko sits on an upper platform of the Christine Jones-Brett J. Banakis funky living room-like set and sings "Alfie," the Hal David-Burt Bacharach song from which the revue's title is lifted.

As anyone who has ever given more than a moment's thought to David's lyrics understands, the song is an ardent monologue. It's a passionate outcry to whomever the singer is addressing about the importance of love to a fulfilled life -- "I believe in love, Alfie/Without true love, we just exist/Until you find the love you've missed/You're nothing."

In my estimation, "Alfie" is one of the great songs from the later 20th century now lodged in the Great American Songbook. That's why I greatly appreciated Riabko's emotionally straightforward interpretation. But I have to emphasize that that's in my estimation.

You see, at the outset of this undertaking, Riabko -- a clever arranger whose inspiration this 90-minuter is -- explains that he only recently delved into composer Bacharach's music and realized he'd like to reimagine it for "my generation." As a result, readers of this report need to know that I'm a member of Bacharach's generation and not Riabko's.

I suppose you could say the "my generation" I'm a part of is the one that The Who bragged about. And this should explain why I so admired Riabko's "Alfie." He sang it as it could have been sung when it was written 47 years ago as the title song for the 1966 Michael Caine-starring film. He sang it as it could be sung with no less persuasion -- I have no doubt -- for this or any future generation.

Moreover, I absolutely don't believe that seminal melody-maker Bacharach needs to be "reimagined" for this or any generation -- other than lending his music to an arranger's notions for cover versions. That will also explain why I find objectionable so much of what's being done in What's It All About?

What's it all about, indeed?! If it's about Riabko's idea of what his generation will respond to, then he's got it in his head that his generation is too strictly defined by the rampant clichés of American Idol belting. Let's go further and call it the American Idol Generation. Let's define it as hyped-up versions of songs in which melody is injected with instrumental steroids, in which lyrics are regarded as negligible and in which -- if the songs are meant to be seen performed as well as heard -- the results are accompanied by movement that has nothing to do with content.

That's certainly what transpires in What's It All About?, as directed and choreographed by Steven Hoggett with unquestioned attention paid to Riabko's "my generation" vision. Interrupted only occasionally by solos along Riabko's "Alfie" lines, the revue is made up of medleys that cut and paste excerpts from Bacharach songs, sometimes with bop-a-bops and la-la-las decorating them like Christmas tree lights.

Take for one egregious example the "Message to Michael"-"On My Own"-"Do You Know the Way to San José?" mash-up (I use the word deliberately, as in "mishmash"), during which the seven performers stomp and smile and shift from mic stand to mic stand, all the while allowed no opportunity to convey the lovelorn and/or trenchant commentary to come through. While Riabko is reimagining Bacharach in order to seduce a supposed contemporary audience with a hypnotic beat, he's not reimagining lyricists Hal David or Carol Bayer Sager in any manner other than detrimental.

Take another laughable stretch where while Laura Dreyfuss nicely renders "Walk On By," cast members detract from her crooning by placing chairs in a circle around her on a stage turntable. The reason is only revealed at the segue into "A House is Not a Home," which begins with David's smart lyric -- considering this film's title-tune challenge -- "A chair is still a chair/Even when there's no one sitting there." Do you get it? Of course, you do. Do you want it? Maybe not. Maybe not wanting this sort of old-time Your Hit Parade television gambit has less to do with this or that generation than it does with good old common sense.

The takeaway is that What's It All About? Bacharach Reimagined is a mixed bag, which is no fault of the talented singers, who also play instruments and execute Hoggett's complicated steps with unflagging verve. Besides sweet-voiced guitarist Riabko and Dreyfuss, they're Daniel Bailen, James Nathan Hopkins, Nathaly Lopez, James Williams and Daniel Woods.

Lopez gets second prize for best attention given a David lyric on "Don't Make Me Over," which also could have been sung exactly this way in 1992 or 1982 or 1972 or 1962, when Dionne Warwick introduced it. Others do okay with solos, although there is a tendency among them when warbling alone to indulge in what actors call "generalized emotion." Nonetheless, they're all accomplished at whatever they play, from guitar or piano down to tambourine and plastic container.

Things could get worse, of course. When Riabko is finished with this escapade, he might decide that other supposedly fading 20th century composers like Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers require reimagining for the 21st century. With luck, they and we will be spared that.

One last observation: On the bass drum is a Ben-Day illustration of Marlene Dietrich, for whom Burt Bacharach served as beloved musical director. What is she making of this?
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And speaking of Hal David, Steve Tyrell is doing just that before the encore at his current Café Carlyle holiday stay. As he concludes a set he calls "Wordsmiths: Lyricists of the Great American Song," he credits David with teaching him everything he knows about the importance of lyrics. Then he runs through "I Say a Little Prayer," for which he's changed a pronoun or two to make it suitable for a man to tackle.

Before that in the best show he's offered since he took over the late Bobby Short's year-end slot, he's applying his gritty baritone to lyrics by Dorothy Fields, Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein II, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Carolyn Leigh, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Johnny Mercer, Carole King and Cynthia Weil.

By the way, he doesn't reimagine them. He just gives them their due. Which is something he always does, no matter that some listeners call him to task for the affability that consistently marks his performing. Truth is, Tyrell's effortlessly infallible phrasing has the effect of making what he does appealingly conversational. The emotion he's experiencing is a component of his seemingly off-handed -- smile-smile-smile -- style. Let's just say he's singing for all generations.