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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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