The most exciting production of Promises, Promises I ever saw placed the orchestra onstage. Those musicians practically blew their lips off tearing through this constantly surprising and challenging Bacharach score, which became as alive as any of the show's characters. But because this is Stages, the music is prerecorded. The playbill calls this "electronic reproduction" and "orchestral realization." Whatever you choose to call it, the resulting sound is about as exciting as a ride in a 1950s elevator listening to Muzak.

What we're left with is Ben Nordstrom out there on his own, undirected, flying by the seat of his dull brown britches, summoning forth every trick he has learned during his years on the stage. Nordstrom has to be working like a dog, yet his creation feels effortless. At least it does for most of the evening. Toward the end of the performance I attended, by the time he got to the climactic title song, Nordstrom seemed to succumb to fatigue, which was certainly forgivable. Less forgivable was that any actor should find himself so isolated in a cast of 21.

It's a shame, because Promises, Promises has so much going for it — music, script, dance — that it should provide vivid memories. I once saw a theater-in-the-round production with Donald O'Connor, at least twenty years too old for Chuck. Midway through the evening, a ferocious storm began to tear at the tent flaps. Cascades of water penetrated the porous shelter. The restive audience began to crowd into the narrow aisles to make for dry spots. Sensing a panic in the making, O'Connor stepped out of character and broke into a chorus of "Singin' in the Rain." Singlehandedly he quelled that potentially lethal situation. When order was restored, the musical continued.

Left: Jerry Vogel and Stellie Siteman in It Had to Be You. Right: Ben Nordstrom and Tari Kelly in Promises, Promises.
Lisa Mandel/ Whitney Curtis
Left: Jerry Vogel and Stellie Siteman in It Had to Be You. Right: Ben Nordstrom and Tari Kelly in Promises, Promises.

Details

It Had to Be You
Through August 1 the Wool Studio Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus, Creve Coeur.
Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and seniors). Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.maxandlouie.com.
Promises, Promises
Through August 15 at the Robert G. Reim Theatre, 111 South Geyer Road, Kirkwood.
Tickets are $49 ($28 for children, $46 for seniors; rush seats for students and seniors $15 at the door).
Call 314-821-2407 or visit www.stagesstlouis.org.

You don't forget magical moments like that. But apart from the savvy Ben Nordstrom and the irrepressible Brandi Wooten, this lamentably dull Promises, Promises, an opportunity almost completely missed, is already erased from memory. Christmas in July? Bah, humbug.

Click here for a complete list of St. Louis stage capsules.
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