They’re Playing Our Song, book by Neil Simon, lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, music by Marvin Hamlisch. Directed by Michael Perreca.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"I need proof I can read back before I go to bed."
Ryan Halsaver and Caitlin Lester-Sams; photo provided
Composer Vernon Gersch is not a nice man, not an easy man to get along with, work with, be with as a friend. He has high standards, the sort we associate with those special people who, today, we call savants. They are focused on one thing and with Vernon Gersch that one thing is himself. His ego far outstrips the egos of most men, including Li’l Abner and Superman combined. Vernon is the center of his own universe.
Enter Sonia Wolsk whose ego suffers from dementia. Sonia cannot break up with her short-term lover Leon Persky. She kicks him out and takes him back in the same night. She sacrifices new love for her old with Leon. Her song lyrics reflect her emotional commitment to this man who cannot commit but can only appropriate and use. She is his victim, but she is her own as well.
Put these two in a room together and ask them to write a song, five songs actually, for Barbra Streisand (a friend of the show’s lyricist Carole Bayer Singer and the show’s composer Marvin Hamlisch) and you have a musical comedy. Or at least you should.
The Theater Barn in New Lebanon has been a favorite of mine for years. They always end their season with a trio of musicals that I try not to miss and this one, "They’re Playing Our Song" is one of my favorites and one of theirs and so I went to the show believing my hope for a real hit would be waiting for me. I was sorely disappointed. Not that this production is all that bad, it is just not what I hoped it would be.
For one thing the off-stage band is much louder than usual. Much louder indeed so that by the end of the second act they are overwhelming. This is unusual for Victoria Casella who usually has a better hand on her group.
For another the actress playing Sonia was holding back on her voice to an incredible level in the first act making herself almost completely inaudible in most of the songs. She was far better in the second act, though. Lucie Arnaz originated this role in 1978 which was later played by Stockard Channing, Anita Gillette, Diana Canova and Donna Murphy. These are women who are known for their big strident sounds. Locally, Caitlin Lester-Sams was not a match for the bountiful clarity of her predecessors and that seriously damaged the performance.
Ryan Halsaver delivered up Vernon on a sliver platter (that’s right, sliver) that was almost painful to the touch. Agreeably louder than his vis-a-vis his character was so abrasive and raw that it was hard to like him at all, except when he was singing. Vernon’s a real challenge for an actor. He is the hero and you have to like him, but Neil Simon’s writing gives him few opportunities for tenderness or fairness or anything likeable. It must, therefore, be the actor who brings in the other elements not found in the dialogue and Halsaver plays Vernon for all of the venom, anger and mean-spiritedness that the author presents. A simple line such as "glad you dropped by" comes out of his mouth like an operatic curse. Ultimately, and that is very far along, he becomes our hero, but it is at the hands of fate and a car driven by a Mexican gardener in Los Angeles.
These two actors, by the way, are playing Simon’s version of his own collaborators Hamlisch and Sager, who never denied that they and their testy relationship were the models for the roles. It is pertinent, therefore, to consider that some of the language is intended to be more tongue-in-cheek than it is right on. The director, Michael Perecca, has seemingly ignored that evidence and gone for the jugulars with his actors.
In part this is saved by the alter egos, a chorus of six girls and boys who play the inner voices of Sonia and Vernon. They are played with wonderful style and fine voices by Katrina Gnatek. Stephanos Bacon, Mary McNulty, Daniel Dunlow, Kimberly Suskind and Sean Riley. Their all-too-brief appearances create the magical realism that this show otherwise lacks and they keep us interested and involved with the two actors.
As usual the Barn has provided fascinating costumes by Logane Robinson, a well appointed set by Abe Phelps who might have considered adding a second couch though to the set, fine lighting by Allen E. Phelps and a stage manager who actually kept the show moving smoothly on opening night, Megan K. Smith.
Providing Lester-Sams is persuaded to sing out (I was so tempted to shout "Sing out, Louise" like Ethel Merman in "Gypsy" at one point) this show would be well worth your time as the score is wonderful and the jokes are good. The examination of the difficulties in a relationship between two self-centered egos is another thing you won’t get many chances to explore. There’s enough here to justify the time and money, but only if the players get over whatever it is that held them in weird check on opening night. At the Theater Barn there is always a chance at greatness, but that shot can go amiss, as it did this time around for me.
They’re Playing Our Song continues through August 18 at the Theater Barn located at 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, New York. For information and tickets all the box office at 518-794-8989 or go on line at www.theaterbarn.com.