Story: Vernon Gersch is a well-known composer and a self-described neurotic. Sonia Walsk is a lyricist and a free spirit, tethered to a lover named Leon she says is in her past but who keeps popping up in her life.
Vernon has agreed to meet Sonia because he’s looking for a musical collaborator. He was intrigued enough by some lyrics she sent to him that he went ahead and composed a song to one of them. Wouldn’t you know it? Sonia really likes his music but now doesn’t care for her lyrics with that particular melody.
And so it goes with Vernon and Sonia. They’re trying to make beautiful music together, but their growing relationship seems constantly out of tune. Still, Vernon feels himself attracted to the talented but trying lyricist. Will this relationship become a hit or end on a sour note?
Highlights: Neil Simon was at the top of his playwright-crafting game when he wrote the book for They’re Playing Our Song, an essentially two-character comedy based on the real-life relationship between award-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line, The Way We Were) and pop tunesmith Carole Bayer Sager.
The original Broadway effort, which starred Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein, opened in 1979 and ran for nearly 1,100 performances. Stages has selected the seldom-performed musical to open its 2014 season with indifferent results, although there are numerous highlights that elicit a smile or laugh along the way.
Other Info: At about two hours and 45 minutes, including intermission, this rendition of They’re Playing Our Song underscores both the strengths and weaknesses of the show itself. Simon unquestionably is the king of the wise-cracking one-liners, and there are plenty tossed off in his often witty play.
Trouble is, Simon never has been one to adhere to the ‘less is more’ philosophy. Thus, a funny joke or two are stretched into five or six, lessening enjoyment with the repetition.
Additionally, there’s not enough chemistry between the two primary players to make this presentation shine. Seth Rettberg is a handsome leading man and Maria Crouch is adept at comedy, both on her own and reacting to Rettberg’s rapid-fire ripostes. Still, Simon doesn’t really allow sufficient time for a relationship to emerge in convincing fashion.
Director Stephen Bourneuf gets everything off to a pedestrian start that threatens to make his show a tedious night. Suddenly, signs of life burst forth in the third scene, when first Rettberg and then Crouch gets animated with a splendid version of the title tune at a nightclub where Vernon and Sonia hear their own songs being performed. Rettberg in particular develops a spring in his step and a lilt in his voice that brings much-needed vitality to the heretofore sluggish proceedings.
Two trios of backup performers, a ‘Greek chorus’ of alter egos for both Sonia and Vernon, add some amusing background accompaniment that broadens Bourneuf’s easy-on-the-eyes choreography, and accentuates Lou Bird’s costumes with identical version of the attire worn by Sonia and Vernon. He favors the preppie style, while she grabs whatever outfit she’s inherited from friends who appeared in productions of Annie Get Your Gun or whatnot.
The ‘alter ego’ players include Craig Blake, Nic Thompson, Aaron Umsted, Brittany Rose Hammond, Sarah Rolleston and Bronwyn Tarboton.
Hamlisch’s music and Sager’s lyrics are forgettable for the most part, while Simon’s storyline just doesn’t have enough substance to do more than bridge one series of jabbing jokes with another. Lisa Campbell Albert is musical director and Stuart Elmore provides orchestral design.
There is a likable set design created by James Wolk that features piano keys bracketing either side and above the myriad central set pieces that accommodate scenes in such diverse locales as Vernon’s apartment, his studio, a nightclub, Sonia’s apartment, a beach cottage and a recording studio, all illuminated by Matthew McCarthy’s lighting. Would that the script were as interesting.
There’s no doubt that Simon writes funny material, even when the book as a whole isn’t particularly memorable. But, who knows? Maybe Stages’ version of They’re Playing Our Song will be music to your ears.
Musical: They’re Playing Our Song
Company: Stages St. Louis
Venue: Reim Theatre, Kirkwood Civic Center, 111 South Geyer Road
Dates: Through June 29
Tickets: $20-$57; contact 821-2407 or stagesstlouis.org
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Peter Wochniak