You may vaguely recall a jukebox musical of Burt Bacharach songs called The Look of Love that opened on Broadway in 2003. Then again, you may not since it wasn’t very memorable. Fortunately, What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined is not a revival of that show. Instead it’s a dynamic, inventively staged, very youthful musical featuring new arrangements of Bacharach’s songs. Actor-singer-musician Kyle Riabko (Spring Awakening) has updated the tunes in interesting ways, retaining the hummable melodies and the lyrics by Hal David and others. Director Steven Hoggett (choreographer of Once and Black Watch) contributes stylized, sometimes synchronized movements and brilliantly changes the mood from song to song. It’s a sensational 90-minute show that will make you appreciate hit-maker Bacharach all over again.
The set is a homey, slightly disheveled jumble of lamps, couches and rugs. A few cast members sit on couches suspended from the rear wall. Some audience members sit in couches on either side of the stage – yes, another show boasting this year’s hot trend: on-stage seating. Lamps of varying sizes litter the stage and walls. The lights dim, the lamps flash, atmosphere is created, and then … Riabko comes out and starts talking. He explains how he approached Bacharach with his arrangements and waited for the composer to call. It’s an underwhelming start to the show, though it helps explain how the musical came to be.
But once Riabko and the other cast members start singing and playing guitars, keyboards and other instruments (nearly all of them are versatile musicians as well as singers), What’s It All About? never has a dull moment for the remainder of its 90 minutes. The seven performers all look about 25 or younger, which is somewhat depressing for those of us who are, well, no longer 25 or younger. Fresh-faced, fresh-voiced and very talented, they take us through the Bacharach canon with heartfelt solos and beautiful harmonies.
There’s no plot and no characters, but Riabko and Hoggett emphasize the emotions behind the lyrics – love, heartbreak and romance above all. One realizes that Bacharach’s songs, which include 48 Top 10 hits and 70 Top 40 hits, are more than just catchy ditties. They have real feeling and plenty of sadness. Hoggett and his performers wring plenty of emotion from every song. And despite the melancholic moments, it’s a great date show.
An early highlight is “I Say a Little Prayer,” featuring the dynamite Nathaly Lopez, who also delivers a wrenching, deeply felt “Don’t Make Me Over.” Laura Dreyfuss shines on songs like “Walk on By” and in duets with Riabko. The show turns into a mini rock concert when Riabko and others brandish electric guitars on “Message to Michael.” It turns out Riabko (who has opened for artists like BB King and James Brown) can wail on guitar as effortlessly as he sustains high notes.
Hoggett works his theatrical magic once again, with staging that is tremendously varied and often ingenious. At about the midway point he starts using the stage turntables a bit too often. But the show is never static and has plenty of musical and visual surprises up its sleeve.
Riabko’s arrangements nimbly mix musical styles and tempos. There are also mash-ups of songs. The finale has the whole cast singing an upbeat “What the World Needs Now” combined with a smattering of other Bacharach tunes. For an encore they do a goofy, exuberant “What’s New Pussycat.” (Yes, Mr. Bacharach wrote that 60s hit too.)
There’s one more musical surprise in store after the show is over. Without saying too much, it’s a good idea to linger outside the theater regardless of the weather.