Name a smash hit song from the Sixties and chances are, if it wasn’t written by those longhaired lads from Liverpool, it was the brainchild of Mr Burt Bacharach. The musical mind behind nine number ones, 48 top 10s and staggeringly, over 70 top 40s, he’s responsible for many of the songs that rocketed the careers of the likes of Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield and Sir Tom Jones. So it’s no surprise that Burt’s music has become the subject of the newest arrival to the West End stage, Close To You: Bacharach Reimagined. In fact, many would say it’s a long overdue tribute.
So, what’s it all about (Alfieee!)? Well, here’s the thing. Don’t go necessarily expecting to come back with an answer to this question. Not quite a musical and not quite a concert, but something between the two, Close to You is unashamedly maverick in its approach. The tried and tested formula of those jukebox musicals we’ve seen so many of recently– wigs, smiles and cheese bashing through the greatest hits of Joe Bloggs– has been thrown out the window. Instead, a talented cast of Bacharach fans, led by composer and actor, Kyle Riabko, just play their instruments and sing, tinkling with and transforming Burt’s classics into a stripped back, heart-laid-bare performance.
Here the songs that are so cosily familiar to us from decades of crooning and crying along to them, like The Look of Love, Anyone Who Had a Heart And I’ll Never Fall in Love Again, become newly unfamiliar as the cast try out Burt’s songs under a selection of different musical hats. We get reggae Burt Bacharach, hill-billy Burt Bacharach, Bacharach, the rockstar… And sometimes this works to beautiful effect. The quieter acoustic interpretations are understated and gorgeous, set against a ramshackle, homely set of guitars, sofas and lamps that feels curiously similar to Once: The Musical (no surprise given that the two musicals share a director, Steven Hoggett).
Magic Moments, Don’t Make Me Over and the title tune, Close To You, are particular highlights. In these moments, the pared back, almost summer music festival feel brings so much life to the songs we thought could never be made any better than they already are. Anastasia McCleskey shone in all these ballad numbers with a belter of a voice to rival even the original artists who recorded these unforgettable tracks.
But not every interpretation always hits the right note, sadly. Like anything that’s been stripped back, there’s always the danger you’ll strip something fundamental out of it. And on occasions I did feel some songs lost their soul in and amongst the test tubes of experiments the cast put Burt’s music under. Do You Know the Way To San Jose? blasted out as a rock number with heavy drums, shouty vocals and blaring lights did make me feel like I’d accidentally stumbled into a One Direction gig. And it made me sad for that song that normally has so much nostalgic charm.
Attempts to remind us that we were watching a musical and not a concert (cue dramatic moving of chairs and torn up letters scattered like snow) often feel rather jarring too, against a production that kept shouting out so loudly that it was trying to be honest and gimmick-free.
If you’re wishin’ and hopin’ for an immersive trip down memory lane, it’s important to point out that you may be a bit disappointed. This is Bacharach designed to attract a new modern generation of followers– an admirable mission there’s no question. But it’s a shame that in the midst of all that cool, it left out some of the old-school magic of Burt’s music that evokes so many memories. It’s not one to Walk On By and well worth a visit to explore whether you like the sound of Bacharach reimagined but just unfortunately not everything you might have imagined.
- Close To You: Bacharach Reimagined is at the Criterion Theatre, London until January 10, 2016. For tickets, call 0844 847 1778 or visit closetoyoulondon.com