“What’s It All About?” at the New York Theatre Workshop (Closed January 5, 2014)

December 10, 2013 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
Music by Burt Bacharach
Lyrics by Hal David and Others
Directed by Steven Hoggett
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

When Kyle Riabko finishes his improvised introduction of the band and the origin of “What’s It All About” which he co-conceived with David Lane Seltzer, he glides into his soulful arrangement of “Anyone Who Had A Heart” (Bacharach/Hal David). The audience collectively leans in (Mr. Riabko intentionally makes his audience pay attention) and everyone is immediately aware they are in the realm of re-imagination – somewhere just beyond the iconic Never Neverland. And the journey for the remaining ninety minutes is exhilarating, redemptive, and restorative of spirit.

Kyle Riabko has re-imagined the Bacharach songbook for a new generation and although this re-imagining connects with all generations of Bacharach fans, “What’s It all About” will resonate in a profound way with the Millennial Generation (the Peter Pan Generation). The themes of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David (and other lyricists) songs counterpoint with the mantras of this generation in electrifying ways and those themes are as universal as they are essential for the future of humankind.

Womanizer Alfie’s angst in the 1966 film by the same name generates his existential query, “What’s it all about? Is it just for the moment we live?” And his dubiety results in an important affirmation: “I know there’s something much more/Something even non-believers can believe in.” Alfie’s query and his resolution are at the contrapuntal core of Mr. Riabko’s successful experiment in re-imagining Burt Bachrach for his generation, a generation far too often dismissed as being as self-centered and perpetually pubescent as Alfie.

There is nothing self-centered about Kyle Riabko and his merry band of six co-conspirators in tapping into the imagination of their audience. This is as generous a group of actors and musicians anyone could hope to have assembled. Clothed in their generation’s garb, this brilliant cast invites the audience into their space – the whole front-of–house has been decorated as “the stage” with the same décor on and off the actual playing area. As they wander about, they explore an impressive 28 Bacharach songs (one outside the theatre) and armed only with their Kierkegaard-esque mantra, they manage to assure “those who have ears to hear” that what humankind needs is to be held tight, to be accepted for who they are (“Don’t Make Me Over”), to reach out to others and be open to being reached out to.

Mr. Riabko’s arrangements are as eclectic as they are persuasive. Bacharach’s songs are re-imagined with rock-and-roll, rock, metal, folk, country, and spoken work beats (and more) and reverberate through the New York Theatre Workshop space with an energy that brings salvific light “[into] the darkness in everybody’s life” (Rocky Horror).

Together, Kyle Riabko and director Steven Hoggett manage to not only reimagine the Bacharach songbook; they also reimagine musical theatre in the process. What the world needs at the moment – Kyle Riabko’s reimagining affirms – is both unconditional and non-judgmental love as well as love of the pussycat eyes variety. All that love, freely given and freely received – might not keep the raindrops from falling on heads desperate for affection and renewal of spirit but that love is redemptive and freeing:

“Raindrops keep falling on my head/But that doesn’t mean my eyes will soon be turnin’ red/
Crying’s not for me/ ‘Cause I’m never gonna stop the rain by complainin’/ Because I’m free/
Nothing’s worrying me.”

It’s all delicious and readers should make reservations to see this remarkable new musical before January 5, 2014. Hopefully, news of the show’s move will be announced before then. Nothing should be worrying Kyle Riabko, Steven Hoggett, and their imposing