What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined continues at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London until 5 September.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The Menier Chocolate Factory has transformed itself this summer into a 1960s hippie retreat – the perfect setting for a remarkable celebration and ‘reimagining’ of the songs of Burt Bacharach by Canadian actor-musician Kyle Riabko and chums.
The set design is the first thing that strikes you as you enter the (blessedly air-conditioned) Menier. Christine Jones and Brett J Banakis’ performance area looks like something from a Californian Steptoe’s yard, festooned with guitars, a cello and various other suspended musical instruments. The stage, and most of the seats, are draped in rugs and kaftans, and the space is lit by every genus and species of lamp known to man. Sixties and 1970s paraphernalia – LPs, books, radio sets – fills every nook and cranny, establishing the setting as a friendly, relaxed hippie commune. All that’s missing is the smell of pot.
After a rather dramatic build up of flashing lights and stirring music (was that a bit of Debussy’s ‘La Mer’?), a single spotlight picks out the fresh-faced Riabko at the guitar. He makes a soft, gentle start with ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’, then we’re off on a thrilling, emotional roller-coaster ride through the Bacharach back catalogue (the Bach catalogue, if you will). There’s no story or dialogue – a wise choice by Riabko and producer David Lane Seltzer – so the music just flows without any need to conform to a plot.
Riabko is joined on stage by a group of six friends (Daniel Bailen, Greg Coulson, Anastacia McCleskey, Stephanie McKeon, Renato Paris and James Williams) to deliver a non-stop 90-minute show of pure class. Each performer is as talented as the other, and while they all have a principal instrument, they’re equally happy to pluck down a ukulele or guitar from the walls, or dig out some percussion from behind the sofas. Riabko, an accomplished guitarist, has a great voice, with a beautiful clear tone, and is comfortable across various styles; it’s McCleskey and Paris, though, who deliver the stand-out vocals of the evening.
Together, as a seven-piece, Riabko & co. make a formidable ensemble, transforming Bacharach’s flawless songwriting into something that at times sounds epic and orchestral with a driving funk, rock or R&B vibe. At other times, during solo numbers, we’re treated to intimacy and fragility, often with the barest of accompaniments. Riabko’s arrangements are rich and varied, yet always commensurate with the songwriting, so it never sounds forced or contrived.
Director/choreographer Steven Hoggett gives just the gentlest of taps to the rudder. His movement direction is reminiscent of his work on Once, and like this show, the overall impression is of a close-knit group of friends jamming away together, this time in their hostel or commune instead of the pub. But don’t be fooled: it’s all incredibly tight, well-rehearsed and utterly slick.
There’s obviously no doubting Bacharach’s gift, and all the classics are covered: ‘Alfie’, ‘Do You Know the Way to San José?’, ‘Don’t Make Me Over’, ‘I Say a Little Prayer’, ‘What’s New Pussycat?’, to name just a few of the 33 songs listed in the programme. The question is, do they benefit from Riabko’s reworking? The answer is a definite yes. No matter how inventive or unexpected the arrangements, there’s always something there to remind you that it’s Bacharach you’re listening to.
With the mash-ups and mingling of songs and themes – the line ‘What’s it all about?’ is woven through the show, for example – there’s a refreshing, contemporary twist; it’s like you’re hearing these classic numbers for the first time. The young cast do appear to be asking the question of Bacharach’s music, “what IS it all about?”, and it’s a privilege to be with them as they discover the answer.
It was also a privilege to be in the audience for the press night, as Burt Bacharach himself made an appearance. The spry 87-year-old joined the cast on stage for a ukulele and piano rendition of ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’ – the perfect end to a lovely evening.