It’s rehearsal time at the Southampton Cultural Center just one week before opening night as the cast files in.
Actor/singer Darren Ottati answers quickly when asked what drew him to the role of Chuck Baxter in the Center Stage production of the musical “Promises, Promises,” based on the Academy-award winning film “The Apartment.” The appeal was the director he so enjoys working with: “Can I say Michael Disher? Is that okay?”
Mr. Ottati worked with Mr. Disher twice last year. He was the male lead, Emile, in Center Stage’s production of “South Pacific: In Concert” and then he kicked off the theater company’s 2016-2017 season by headlining the “Best of Broadway” concert.
In this turn on the cultural center stage, Mr. Ottati plays a likable everyman who sees a way to move ahead in his job by loaning out his New York City pad for office trysts.
“He’s one of the good guys,” Mr. Disher said of Baxter. “He wants to get ahead, sure, but he has an innate goodness. You root for him.”
The female lead, Shannon DuPuis, bounds into the auditorium and pours her bag and coat into a seat. When asked what drew her to the role of Fran Kubelik, her response echoes her co-star’s. “Oh that’s easy: Michael Disher.”
Ms. DuPuis is familiar to Center Stage audiences as the female lead, Nellie, in “South Pacific” and as Cassie in 2015’s “A Chorus Line.”
Mr. Disher has been directing at the cultural center for 10 years, following a long tenure at Southampton College where he was known as “Mr. Theater.” Originally bitten by the acting bug, he has directed countless productions on the East End, including original works. “Promises, Promises” will be his 41st show with Center Stage. He is what in Broadway parlance might be known as an “old hat.”
And so is this musical, which opened on Broadway in 1968 and enjoyed a revival in 2010.
“The show doesn’t need to be modernized,” Mr. Disher said. “You just have to tell the story the right way.”
With energy and enthusiasm to spare, the Amagansett resident said he has six weeks from casting to opening night and the excitement—or he might say, panic—is palpable.
“This is a very difficult score to sing,” he pointed out.
With music and lyrics by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, respectively, the score is one that audiences will be familiar with. Some of the numbers such as “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” “I Say a Little Prayer” and the title track were all hit songs for Dionne Warwick.
“Bacharach was the one sound that both my parents and I agreed upon,” said Mr. Disher, who grew up in Lexington, North Carolina.
“Whether it was the quick-witted lyrics, smooth melodies, universal appeal or infectious bossa nova rhythms of the ’60s that hooked my family defies explanation, but his songs connected us—and many others.”
He added, “That doesn’t make them easy to sing! Bacharach writes metrically in ways that confuse. It’s 4:4. Then 3:4, then 2:4, then 5:6.”
Neil Simon wrote the book for “Promises, Promises” and the playwright’s humor is one reason, Mr. Disher said, that the show remains light and hopeful, even while dealing with a suicide attempt.
“The film [‘The Apartment’ by Billy Wilder] was much darker. Not a happy place. But the core story of two lost souls who find each other really by coincidence remains. Simon brings a levity that isn’t in the film. When it gets too dark, a character brings some common sense and some lightness.”
And while the pre-women’s rights era dictates a “Mad Men”-like underlying misogyny and a male-dominated society, Mr. Disher raises an interesting point.
“The plot covers men and their philandering, their peccadilloes,” he said. “But when you look at it, the three female characters of Fran, Miss Olson and Mrs. Sheldrake—these are strong women who in the end, have all the power.”
And of course there is that infectious score.
That’s what Mr. Disher would like audiences to leave with.
“You know a lot of the tunes,” he said. “We want you to leave humming them. We want you to leave with a smile on your face. We want you to leave with a sense of nostalgia for a time when things were complicated but not so complicated that we couldn’t figure out what to do.”
Asked how they feel about this show and how they want audiences to feel, the ensemble concurs and shouts out, “nostalgic,” “hysterical,” “entertained,” “energized,” “satisfied.”
Promises, promises, sure. But in the deft hands of Mr. Disher and buoyed by a talented cast, it’s one promise (or two) that can be counted on.
“Promises, Promises” runs Thursdays, at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. from March 9 through 26. General admission is $28, or $15 for students under 21. For tickets and more information call 631-287-4377 or go to scc-arts.org.
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