In an alternate universe the ultimate Burt Bacharach show would feature Dionne, Dusty, Karen and Cilla belting out his timeless classics. But – with Springfield, Carpenter and Black having shuffled off to that great stage in the sky – Warwick is the last woman standing and she hasn’t performed live since 2012.
Not that the team behind Close To You have any interest in doing Bacharach the old way. There’s no space in this jukebox musical – which isn’t really a musical at all, more a compendium of songs – for crooners and cronies. It comes with the subtitle Bacharach Reimagined and it delivers on that promise, taking Burt’s music and stripping it down or rocking it up.
The songwriter’s canon, with most of the lyrics being provided by the late Hal David, is a treasure trove to choose from and the creatives on Close To You have chosen wisely. The title song is joined on the bill by Walk On By, I Say A Little Prayer, The Look Of Love, Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head and many, many more masterful tunes.
Does the reimagining work? Yes, most of the time. A reggae-fied version of I’ll Never Fall In Love Again is sublime, when Kyle Riabko does an acoustic Alfie it’s enough to give you chills and when Anastacia McCleskey tears into Walk On By its raw emotion will slay you.
Riabko, an American musician and star of Spring Awakening and Hair on Broadway, conceived this radical reworking of the work of one of his country’s most prolific composers and he’s sensational. So too is the musicianship of a cast who play all their own instruments.
Festooned with lamps and dusty furniture, with guitars and bric-a-brac hanging on the walls, the set is very San Francisco beatnik café and the vibe flits from energetic jam session to pretentious performance art, complete with some artsy-fartsy choreography that should have been jettisoned long before the show (which started out in NYC and enjoyed a well-received run at the Menier Chocolate Factory) reached the West End.
Circling the big numbers with snippets of others gets a bit repetitive; these songs are so good that, even when the remit is to rework them, they should be heard in full. And What’s New Pussycat, possibly Burt and Hal’s only misfire, is trotted out for the encore as a thrash-metal/jazz mash-up that is truly disastrous.
The lack of a narrative means Close To You lives and dies on the power of the performances and most of the time they’re very powerful indeed. Bacharach has given it his seal of approval and that’s no small thing. I just wish he’d advised director Steven Hoggett to cut the dance moves, put the brakes on the revolving stage and let the music speak for itself.
Close To You is at the Criterion Theatre, London, until January 10th. For tickets call 0844 847 1778 or visit CloseToYouLondon.com
WORDS: SIMON BUTTON