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The Sunshine Boys
by Neil Simon
Directed by Doug Finlayson
New Jewish Theatre
October 15, 2015

Peter Mayer, John Contini Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Peter Mayer, John Contini
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Vaudeville is a matter of history for most people nowadays, remembered mostly for its influence on the development of entertainment and comedy performance. Once upon a time, though, Vaudeville was at the heart of the entertainment industry, and its performers were well-known stars, many of whom later found success in movies and television. But as big as it was in its heyday, Vaudeville’s popularity eventually died out, its performers grew older, and audiences’ memories faded. For the two aging vaudevillians at the center of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, the memories of their more successful days are bittersweet. Now being presented in a well-cast production at New Jewish Theatre, The Sunshine Boys is a sometimes overly long, but still insightful look at the life of two performers who may not like each other very much, but with whom, for better or for worse, they will always be associated.

That “for better or worse” phrasing calls to mind a marriage, and in a way former stage partners Willie Clark (John Contini) and Al Lewis (Peter Mayer) act like an acrimonious divorced couple. They are linked by a shared past and common public association, but they also harbor years of bitter resentment. It’s a wonder that these two actually managed to work together for over 40 years. The story centers mostly on Willie, who lives in a shabby old hotel room (reduced from what once was a suite), and spends his days watching TV, complaining about various issues to the management, reading Variety and hoping to get jobs acting in commercials. When his longsuffering nephew, Ben (Jared Sanz-Agero), who is also Willie’s agent, brings a network TV job to Willie’s attention, that’s when the volatile action really begins. The job requires a reunion with Al, whom Willie hasn’t seen in years, and a revival of one of their best known acts, a sketch about a a doctor. A somewhat disastrous rehearsal in Willie’s apartment doesn’t bode well for this collaboration, but the TV appearance continues as planned until an unexpected crisis disrupts Willie’s life even further.

The play is surprisingly slow-moving for a Neil Simon comedy, and it takes a while for the story to really start moving. The first act is mostly Willie complaining to Ben about his life, and after Al shows up, it’s almost nonstop bickering. There are some great comic moments, and a good look at a largely forgotten area of the showbiz world, but it’s a little difficult to sympathize considering Willie is just so insufferable for much of the play. Veteran actor Contini, who took over this role on very short notice, does an admirable job of bringing out a degree of charm in the cantankerous old comedian, which is a feat considering the script makes him so difficult to like. The show’s best moments are when Contini is sharing the stage with Sanz-Agero, who is an effective “every man” figure as Ben, and with Mayer as the curmudgeonly but less caustic Al, who serves as a good foil for the more combative Willie. The recreation of the comic sketch is funny, as well, and there’s great support from the ensemble including Leo B Ramsey as a TV production assistant, Bob Harvey as a patient and Julie Crump as a patient and nurse in the doctor sketch, and Fannie Belle-Lebby as a real home health nurse who appears late in the play.

Technically, the show lives up to New Jewish Theatre’s already excellent reputation. Margery and Peter Spack’s incredibly detailed set appropriately suggests the rundown, cluttered hotel room where Willie spends his life. There’s also a good recreation of an early 1970’s TV set, with excellent lighting by Michael Sullivan and sound by Robin Weatherall. The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler and props by Margery Spack help to vividly illustrate this world of an aging vaudevillian, with Willie’s old costume trunk as a key element in the story.

Overall, while the script does drag in places and takes a while to get going, The Sunshine Boys is a funny and occasionally poignant portrayal of aging comedians struggling to restore a relationship that they’re not sure they want to restore. The importance of family and friendship ties is also emphasized in this classic comedy by one of America’s best-known playwrights. As staged at NJT with its excellent production values and strong cast, The Sunshine Boys is well worth seeing.

John Contini, Jared Sanz-Agero Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewis Theatre

John Contini, Jared Sanz-Agero
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewis Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting The Sunshine Boys at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until November 1, 2015.

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The Odd Couple (Female Version)
by Neil Simon
Directed by Alan Knoll
Dramatic License Productions
April 25, 2015

The Cast of The Odd Couple (Female Version) Photo by John Lamb Dramatic License Productions

The Cast of The Odd Couple (Female Version)
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple has had many incarnations over the years. It’s been a play that’s seen several revisions and revivals, as well as a film and a popular TV show, along with several attempts at remaking the TV show. The latest production at Dramatic License, of Simon’s 1986 female version of the play–reflects the company’s new focus on women.  An ingenious and entertaining re-invention of the play, this version is a fitting first venture on the company’s new track.

This isn’t just the male Odd Couple with women subbing for the men. Having never seen this version before, I’m impressed with how well Simon has translated the material, especially since the dynamics of female friendships are often very different than those of male friendships. The basic situation is similar, but the overall effect is quite different. The play tells the story of laid-back, somewhat slovenly Olive Madison (Kim Furlow), who lives alone but hosts a regular evening playing Trivial Pursuit with her group of friends, including Sylvie (Kirsten Wylder), police officer Mickey (Carmen Larimore Russell), Renee (Christine Alsop), and Vera (Mara Bollini). Soon into the evening, the friends are informed that their fastidious friend, Florence Unger (Colleen Backer) has gone missing after splitting with her husband. Eventually, Florence turns up at Olive’s place, and Olive offers to let Florence move in.  This sets off the inevitable conflict, as their personalities couldn’t be more different, and Florence is dealing with her own issues of insecurity over her failed relationship. The usual comedy ensues, including a situation involving a pair of romantically inclined Spanish brothers (Paul James as Manolo, Phil Leveling as Jesus) who live in their building and who Olive invites over for dinner.

This story plays out both similarly and differently than its male-centered counterpart. The situation is similar, as are some of the conflicts, but the personalities come across much differently in this version. For instance, I always found the Felix character in the male version to be somewhat unbearable, but in Florence, the neurotic neat-freak characteristics appear much more sympathetic, especially here, as played by the excellent Backer.  She lends an endearing quality to the character that isn’t quite as apparent in the male version, and her interactions with Furlow’s Olive are still combative, but there’s an underlying affection there that’s easier to see in this version. Furlow gives an equally strong performance as Olive, who portrays an effective air of vulnerability in the midst of her character’s outward bravado. The two leads are what really make the show here, although they get some good support from the rest of the cast as well, especially Bollini as the somewhat naive Vera, Wylder as the sarcastic Sylvie, and Leveling and James as the charmingly goofy Costazuela brothers.  There’s a strong sense of energy throughout the ensemble, as well as some good moments of physical comedy.

The production maintains the 1986 setting of this version’s first staging, and that atmosphere is maintained well through the use of 1980’s music played between scenes, as well as Lisa Hazelhorst’s costumes. The set, designed by Kyra Bishop, is sufficiently detailed and also appropriately rearranged between scenes to reflect Florence’s influence after she moves in.

This is a very funny show, reflecting the importance of friendships among women, as well as the need for individual independence. I find the characters of Florence and Olive easier to relate to than their male counterparts, and even though the male version of this show is more famous, I think I actually prefer this version.  It’s been given a lively and hilarious production at Dramatic License Productions that’s well worth seeing.

Kim Furlow, Colleen Backer, Carmen Larimore Russell, Kirsten Wylder Photo by John Lamb Dramatic License Productions

Kim Furlow, Colleen Backer, Carmen Larimore Russell, Kirsten Wylder
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

The Odd Couple (Female Version) is on stage at Dramatic License Productions, in Chesterfield Mall, until May 10th, 2015.

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They’re Playing Our Song
Music by Marvin Harmlisch, Lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager
Book by Neil Simon
Directed and Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
June 4, 2014

Maria Couch, Seth Rettberg Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Maria Couch, Seth Rettberg
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

My earliest memories of They’re Playing Our Song involve the ubiquitous television commercials for the national tour in the early 1980’s. First produced on Broadway in 1979, this show was a very popular and much-hyped touring staple. Nowadays, although the show has been revived a few times, it is very much tied to its time. In its music, situations and sensibilities, it’s a 1970’s show through and through. STAGES St. Louis, in the first main stage production of their 2014 season, has wisely chosen not to try updating the show’s setting, presenting what is, for the most part,  a sweet and very period-specific romantic comedy with an appealing cast and a clear sense of time and place.

Inspired by the real-life romantic and professional relationship of composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, They’re Playing Our Song presents a series of  significant moments in the lives of an Oscar-winning composer, the professionally competent but romantically unlucky Vernon Gersch (Seth Rettberg) and his new lyricist Sonia Walsk (Maria Couch), an offbeat and chronically late free spirit who likes to wear recycled theatrical costumes and has a somewhat unhealthy attachment to her unseen but much talked about slacker ex-boyfriend Leon. The more conventional Vernon and the unpredictable Sonia soon forge an uneasy bond, learning to work together and trying to manage a burgeoning romantic connection in the midst of various personality conflicts and situational difficulties.  There are a lot of jokes about analysts, New York life, show business, sex and the male vs. female expectations in relationships as the two navigate their on-again, off-again relationship.

If this sounds like a Neil Simon plot, that’s because it is.  Simon wrote the script, and it plays out like a fairly typical offbeat 197o’s romantic comedy.  The characters are neurotic and quirky, and the  jokes are witty and fast-moving, although some of them don’t land quite as well as they probably did once upon a time.    Although the show involves the  interesting conceit of employing a sort “Greek Chorus” of alter egos for Sonia (Brittany Rose Hammond, Sarah Rolleston, Bronwyn Taboton) and Vernon (Craig Blake, Nic Thompson, Aaron Umsted), the real weight of this production rests on the shoulders of its two leads.  Rettberg and Couch bring a lot of enthusiasm to the stage, and Rettberg especially is able to infuse the somewhat stuffy Vernon with a lot of deadpan wit and goofy charm.  His voice is strong, especially on “Fallin'” at the beginning of the show, and “Fill In the Words” at the end.  Couch does a fine job as Sonia as well, especially in opening scene where all her eccentricities are made known, and in the later scenes where she starts to show some substance behind all the over-the-top quirkiness.  Her best musical moments are the plaintive “Just For Tonight” and her duets with Vernon, such as the upbeat disco-driven “Working It Out” and “They’re Playing Our Song”. Both performers excel in the delightfully cheesy dancing scenes, as well, and their chemistry is good if not exactly electric.  There’s some great support from the alter-egos, as well, and their entrances from basically everywhere (from inside wardrobe, behind curtains,from behind walls, etc.) are hilarious,  even though their role often comes across as more of a running gag than as a truly relevant plot device.

The 70’s atmosphere of this production is very well realized, even if sometimes I wish they had hammed it up even more. Director/Choreographer Stephen Bourneuf’s fun, disco-influenced dance numbers are a real highlight.  The set, by James Wolk, is colorful and clever, with a stage surrounded by a giant piano keyboard and individual sets (especially Sonia’s rummage-sale special of an apartment) that add to the whimsical nature of the show, and Matthew McCarthy’s lighting design adds to the mood as well with some great effects, especially in illuminating the giant piano keys and in the disco-style lighting of the night club scene.  Lou Bird’s costumes are another real strength of this production, particularly in Sonia’s outfits that range from thrift-store chic to “best of the 7o’s” fashion (a striped wrap-around top, an orange turtleneck, a shimmery red disco dress).  Vernon’s well-coordinated suits accurately reflect his character, as well. This was a very colorful period in American fashion and culture, and that is reflected very well in the overall look and feel of this production.

They’re Playing Our Song is musical that definitely shows its age, although there is much to like in STAGES’ production.  Ultimately, I would say that this is a production that majors on charm and energy, with a sweetly cheesy 70s vibe. Although I do wonder how it will be received by audience members who don’t remember this time period, for the most part I think it’s a time trip worth taking.

Cast of They're Playing Our Song Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of They’re Playing Our Song
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

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