REVIEWSTheatre ReviewsTom Williams

They’re Playing Our Song

Book by Neil Simon.

Music by Marvin Hamlisch.

Lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager.

Directed & Choreographed by Daniel Spagnuolo.

Musical Direction by Ilana Atkins.

Produced by Brown  Paper Box Co.

At Rivendell Theatre, Chicago.

Dated chamber musical is well-sung but flat on Simon’s jokes.

They’re Playing Our Song, now playing at Rivendell Theatre,  is a chamber musical with a book by Neil Simon, lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, and music by Marvin Hamlisch that played in 1979 on Broadway for over 1,000 performances. It has not been produced in  Chicago for decades and the dated script rears ugly in 21st century sensibilities.

In a story based on the real-life relationship of Hamlisch and Sager, a sarcastic composer finds a new, offbeat lyricist, but initially the match is not one made in heaven. The two undergo a series of trials and overcome a number of hurdles before finding true love by the final curtain. Hoping to find a new collaborator, award-winning composer Vernon Gersch (Dan Gold) meets the offbeat yet accomplished Sonia Walsk (Carmen Risi) at his luxury Manhattan apartment. Vernon has already written music to one of Sonia’s lyrics. The song is exceptional and it’s clear something wonderful can come from this partnership. Before too long, they start a romantic relationship, move in together, and then the trouble begins.

They’re Playing Our Song is essentially a two-character show. Vernon and Sonia are the sole characters on stage; each character has a three-person Greek chorus acting as their inner voices. The Brown Paper Box Co’s production uses pre-recorded music and a 70’s flavored set. Basically, it is well-sung by Dan Gold and Carmen Risi with a tad too much use of the three-person male and three-person female Greek chorus. The over use of these six folks in dance routines was overkill. The choreography often conflicted with the mood of the song being sung. I’d advise cutting mush of the needless choreography.

The chemistry between Sonia and Vernon ultimately came true with the talents of Carmen Risi. Her exuberance, manic energy, and winning smile made her an audience favorite and someone Vernon eventually couldn’t resist. This was difficult to grasp because of the hyper-reactive nerdy responses from Dan Gold. His timing of Neil Simon’s retorts and one=liners left the jokes flat too often. It was as if he didn’t realize where the jokes resided.

But, I had a difficult time understanding Carmen Risi’s speech. She spoke extremely fast, running her words together and mumbling all at once.  Only members of the Brown Paper Box laughed at Sonia’s lines; most of the audience members simply couldn’t understand what she said. She needs to slow down her speech patterns to be understood. Simon’s jokes fell flat with these two.

But they eventually get enough stage chemistry going to be believable as lovers. Both Risi and Gold nailed their songs nicely making  They’re Playing Our Song a worthwhile nostalgic trip back to the 70’s song making era. With better articulation and a slower speech pace, Neil Simon’s comedy would add much  to the show.

Somewhat Recommended.

Tom Williams.

Jeff Recommended.

At  Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N Ridge Ave, Chicago, IL, tickets $27,  Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays at 7;30 pm, Sundays at 2 pm, running time is 2 hours, 30 minutes with intermission.