What’s It All About? is not a musical along the lines of ‘We Will Rock You’ or ‘Mama Mia!’, but is billed rather as ‘Bacharach Reimagined’. This is a celebration of the music of Bacharach, American song writing maestro, with main musician and co-conceiver Kyle Riabko and six of his young ‘friends’ (as he introduces them at the start), male and female, performing over 30 of Bacharach’s musical gems over 90 minutes. There’s no storyline, and the message seems to be very much that we should let the music do the talking as we bask in the pop gold. Plus the project has the blessing of Burt himself (he introduces the show on the PA, asking us to turn off our mobile phones).
It starts off promisingly, the intimate theatre transformed into a kind of well-heeled loft practice space, with rugs, musical instruments, lamps, microphones and chairs (some suspended above the stage, with various band members lounging around on them before the action). The audience feel like they are watching a laid back, informal (though highly-polished) jam session as guest invites, while the lighting evokes a honeyed, sun-kissed Californian atmosphere, with perhaps Laurel Canyon or Santa Barbara outside. It’s a warm and relaxing setting.
And the music starts promisingly: ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ is given a stripped back, initially solo treatment by Kyle and his guitar, reminiscent of Chris Isaak in his more rockabilly, 50s moments, keening and yearning, building and swelling as the additional performers join him at the front and the momentum pulse. It’s a solid opening crackling with electricity and charisma. However, by the time we’ve heard the next few songs the show’s pattern has been formed: these familiar, much-loved songs are overlaid with snippets of others, with the whole Bacharach canon almost merging into one long piece – expertly delivered, with much sweet charm (and smoothly choreographed moves), but removing the uniqueness of the individual pieces and their many moods. This creates a rather bland uniformity to the evening, and it starts looking like less of a jam session and more like a rehearsal for a saccharine TV talent show. The lyric ‘what’s it all about?’, from ‘Alfie’, is a repeated refrain throughout, and I found myself silently asking Kyle and the gang the same question at times.
You can’t fault the players: it’s a technically well-produced set, and there is a sense of good spirit, ease and enjoyment in the material (and in their performing together). What is missing though is what makes the songs so affecting in themselves, and you end up remembering your own particular favourite versions of what you are hearing. The sadness of some of the material (and Hal David’s often simple but grown-up lyrics) is also erased by the sheer relentless, pumping exuberance of the action. When there are more heartfelt moments in the show you felt that fun-times were never far away due to the exuberance of the playing, and there didn’t seem to be any real pain here. I missed the vulnerable quality of, say, Dusty or Karen, or Sammy Davis Jr’s wrought, lived-in ‘This Guy’s In Love With You’, or Bacharach’s own delivery of ‘Alfie’. It may be unfair to make such comparisons with such a youthful cast here, but when there are such iconic, nuanced renderings of the songbook in our cultural memories, it’s hard to stop asking what Bacharach is being re-imagined as here.
However the audience loved it, and by the final version of ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ and a surprise outside, courtyard ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’, you felt that both cast and viewer would happily have stayed for another 30 songs.