'It's pretty radical': Kyle Riabko on his tribute to the music of Burt Bacharach

Kyle Riabko vividly remembers the “nerve-racking” visit to Burt Bacharach’s home.

“You walk in and instantly see Oscars on the wall and Grammys on the floor,” Riabko recalled, describing some of the many awards the veteran pop songwriter has received over the last half-century for indelible tunes such as “Alfie,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”

“And there are these two framed letters in the hallway — fan letters, one from Paul McCartney and one from Richard Rodgers,” Riabko said with a laugh. “At that point it just sort of hits you that this is ridiculous what I’m here to do.”

A young singer and actor known for his lead performance in Broadway’s “Spring Awakening,” Riabko had ventured to the Pacific Palisades to demonstrate how dramatically he’d reworked Bacharach’s celebrated catalog for a new theatrical project he was putting together.

On a practical level of course he had no choice but to seek the composer’s approval (and permission). “But it was also important to me personally,” Riabko said. “There’s no way I would’ve moved forward without Burt’s blessing.”

That’s what he got that afternoon a few years ago, and soon Riabko was starring at New York Theater Workshop in “What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined.” In 2015 the musical revue played London’s West End.

Now this scruffy but handsome 29-year-old is touring a one-man version that will stop Friday and Saturday at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

In Riabko’s hands, Bacharach’s music shakes some of the fixed ideas that have come to settle around it.

For starters, he’s using stripped-down acoustic guitars instead of the more refined sonic palette — piano, horns, lightly brushed percussion — that signified urbane sophistication in the 1960s and early ’70s. His singing has a breathy, bluesy quality, nothing like Dionne Warwick’s crisp intonation in “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.”

And rather than present the songs as discrete pieces, he’s blended Bacharach’s twisty melodies into a kind of cleverly assembled megamix, in which phrases from “This Guy’s in Love with You” and “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” among many other songs, come together in surprising ways.

“It’s pretty radical,” Riabko acknowledged this week in an interview at the Wallis. “But I think that’s why it works, and also why Burt responded to it.”

Riabko first met Bacharach, who’s now 88, in 2010, when he was hired to sing vocals for demos the composer was recording at a studio in Santa Monica. He figured it would be a quick gig, “in and out in an hour.” But the two found they had some musical chemistry and started trading ideas as they worked on Bacharach’s songs.

“We were basically jamming,” Riabko said. “And after the session, he was like, ‘Who are you? What do you do?’” Years earlier, before he got into theater with “Spring Awakening,” Riabko released a singer-songwriter album — a sort of junior John Mayer affair called “Before I Speak.” But the record didn’t really go anywhere, and since then it hadn’t gotten any easier for a guy with a guitar.

“So Burt said, ‘You’re gonna have to do some unusual stuff to stand out,’” Riabko recalled, which eventually led to the idea of the revue.

To find his place in the music, Riabko listened to Bacharach nonstop for months, “just getting it in my head,” he said. He’d cue up 30 versions of “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” on Spotify and analyze the variations. And he’d listen across the decades, from “Promises, Promises,” the late-’60s musical Bacharach wrote with his longtime lyricist, Hal David, to “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do),” a soft-pop collaboration from the early ’80s with his then-wife, Carole Bayer Sager.

“The thing about Bacharach that’s different from other writers is that each song has its own geometric shape, with its own unique angles, depending on what the song is about,” Riabko said. If most pop tunes are rectangles, he added, “Burt’s got some trapezoids.”

But from his deep listening, patterns began to emerge, which enabled him to make connections between various songs — “to take the pieces apart and build this new house of cards,” as Riabko put it.

One of his goals with these bold arrangements is recontextualizing music that might seem old-fashioned to younger listeners. Bacharach’s delicate harmonies and understated rhythms can be a tough sell to kids raised on Justin Bieber and Beyoncé. Yet there are moments in “Bacharach Reimagined” that come close to Ed Sheeran, for instance — a modern comparison with which Riabko seemed comfortable.

“We use the word ‘timeless’ a lot,” he said. “But what does that mean? In order to be timeless, someone else has to keep playing the music, so the passing of the baton is important. And it takes a really strong artist to see that.”

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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