When you walk into the New York Theatre Workshop you immediately notice the coziness of the set (by Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis). The walls are paneled in carpets and other sound-absorbing material with small shelves interspersed every few feet, each shelf holding a small lamp. On the stage there are couches on either side of the set where audience members are being seated.
On the back wall of the theatre couches hang on the wall and sit atop platforms where the seven-member cast of talented musicians roost as the audience files in. Musical instruments are hung about and stowed in every nook and cranny. It’s a cozy environment that lends itself to something familiar, the soundtrack to many of our childhoods.
Riabko has lovingly woven these songs into a show that moves with fluidity. While Bacharach’s songs lend themselves to a theme, Riabko has tapped that theme, love, and magically blends the songs into a lovely 90-minutes. Recurring throughout the evening is the haunting refrain from the song “Alfie,” the lyrics from which the show derives its title. Riabko gives the song its full do in a simple and stunning rendition towards the end of the show. The harmonics among the cast’s vocals are tight and the musical arrangements (with almost all of the cast at least doubling on musical instruments) are fresh and contemporary.
Joining Riabko on stage are six other talented actor/singer/musicians. Each has a moment in which they shine. Nathaly Lopez gives “Walk on By” a cool, zombie-like performance that comes from a woman who has been beaten down one too many times. She also gives an equally touching treatment to “Don’t Make Me Over.” James Nathan Hopkins (keyboards, guitar and vocals) and Daniel Woods (guitar and vocals) tackle “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” with a light touch. Rounding out the cast are Daniel Bailen (bass and vocals), Laura Dreyfuss (vocals), and James Williams (drums and vocals).
The production is directed by Steven Hoggett whose work has been seen on Broadway in the movement of Once and American Idiot. He will also choreograph the upcoming Rocky on Broadway. Hoggett has complimented Riabko’s fluid score with an equally flowing staging for the show. His movement is clever and is frequently as simple as a series of head snaps. The concentric turn-tables used for several numbers were probably unnecessary.
The show is sumptuously lit by Japhy Weideman. Despite a couple of numbers where lights are directed into the audience (something I hate), the lighting is effective and helps focus the audience’s attention as needed.
The exclamation point on the evening is the encore, Bacharach’s kooky “What’s New Pussycat” done with even greater kookiness by this young cast, Riabko giving a screech here and there as he contorts his face. What’s It All About is such a fun evening that does justice to Mr. Bacharach and usually high expectations one has come to associate with New York Theatre Workshop.
The show plays at New York Theatre Workshop through January 5.