At the start of “What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined,” now open at the New York Theatre Workshop, actor and singer Kyle Riabko, 25, explains that the idea behind this new revue is to “reinterpret” songs by the legendary composer for “a new generation.”
The good news, then, is that Burt Bacharach for a new generation sounds a whole lot like Burt Bacharach for older generations. While Riabko and a charismatic ensemble of vocalists have added a rock riff here and a bit of soul there, the arrangements in this very appealing hour-and-a-half concert sound pretty much the way you first heard them, whether that was sung by Dionne Warwick, or Christopher Cross, or perhaps on the soundtrack to “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”
Despite its tantalizing title, “What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined” isn’t so much a new interpretation of the hit maker’s canon as it is a loyal-to-its roots homage … when you sort it out.
More than two dozen Bacharach classics (most with lyrics by Hal David) are interspersed throughout this affectionate tribute, directed by Stephen Hoggett, whose choreography has been featured in the NYTW’s “Once” and “Peter and the Starcatcher.” Songs performed here — most, likely to be known by theatergoers of any generation — include “Close to You,” “Walk on By,” “Arthur’s Theme” and “A House is Not a Home.”
Riabko, once upon a time the successor to Jonathan Groff in Broadway’s “Spring Awakening,” conceived “What’s It All About?” in 2010, when he performed some of Bacharach’s new material for the songwriter in a California recording studio. Riabko later proposed this event, and was no doubt tickled by the voicemail message received thereafter: “Hi, Kyle. Give me a call tomorrow. We’ll talk.” (A nice touch: we hear Bacharach’s voice delivering that message at the outset. The composer, 85, was slated to be on hand in the East Village for opening night.)
While Riabko is leader of this pack, he’s backed by six equally fresh-faced vocalists, all of whom see ample time in the spotlight. The two women (Laura Dreyfuss and Nathaly Lopez) sing; the men (Daniel Bailen, James Nathan Hopkins, James Williams and Daniel Woods) do double-duty on vocals and instruments — acoustic and electric guitars, a cello, piano, ukuleles, a xylophone, even an ankle bracelet made of bells.
Though these arrangements are ostensibly new, they never risk alienating anyone by drifting too far from their original interpretations. Hoggett’s mostly static staging has some swell moments, such as when Riabko performs “The Look of Love” with vocalist Dreyfuss standing intimately between him and the guitar.
As “Glee” has taught us, Bacharach’s songs, with their easy-to-invest-in notions — What the world needs now is love? True that! — lend themselves easily to mashups and medleys, and we have plenty of that here, with, for just one example, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” paired with an uptempo “Message to Michael.”
Lopez has lovely solos with “Say a Little Prayer” and “Don’t Make Me Over” that distinguish her from her talented peers.
“What’s it all about,” the melodic refrain from “Alfie,” is spliced intermittently into the proceedings as an interlude. Riabko gives the full song its due toward night’s end, which is also when “What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined” finally deviates from tribute to genuine reinterpretation, with a youthful, hip-thrusting take on “What’s New Pussycat” that is unabashedly less tentative than the songs that precede it.
The downright dotty set by Christine Jones (a Tony winner for “American Idiot”) and Brett Banakis includes dual turntables. The floor is dotted with crates that double as chairs, as well as a half-dozen lamps, which flash on and off with curious abandon. The most striking feature is the wall decoration, a hodgepodge of rugs and seating — yep, loveseats — installed many feet off the ground.
Riabko and his colleagues successfully walk a tightrope between respecting an institution and leaving their own imprint, though they skew more toward the former. And that’s fine. There’s no need to mess with music that’s as inviting and sugary-sweet as a caramel-coated ice cream sundae. Has anyone written pop music more likely to leave you in diabetic shock, or happier that you got there?
“What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined,” through Jan. 5 at the New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St. Tickets: $80. Call 212-460-5475 or visit ticketcentral.com.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn