They’re Playing Our Song

By Geary Danihy

One would think that writing the book for a musical comedy would come as easy to Neil Simon as spreading cream cheese on a bagel, but They’re Playing Our Song, which opened on Broadway in 1979 and received several Tony nominations, including Best Book, would suggest not.

In its current manifestation at the Ivoryton Playhouse, it’s obvious that They’re Playing Our Song is a comedy, and it certainly is a musical, with music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Carol Bayer Sager, but to link the two together and call it a musical comedy is like cooking eggs in one pan and ham in another and calling it a ham omelet. The elements simply do not mesh, regardless of what the Tony judges thought.

The premise is typical Simon – we have an “odd couple” thrown together by circumstance, with much of the comedy rising out of said oddness. In this case, the couple consists of Vernon Gersch (Michael Nathanson), a successful tune-meister with an Oscar and several Grammys on the shelf who likes his life as orderly as possible, and Sonia Walsk (Amy Lee Williams), a free-spirited lyricist who is perpetually late, somewhat disorganized and unable to end a relationship with her needful boyfriend Leon.

Although different as night and day, the two agree to collaborate and, over time, move into a deeper relationship that is fraught with misunderstandings and threatened by the couple’s personality disjuncts. Along the way, they sing some songs, alone and together, but except for “They’re Playing Our Song,” the tunes, all less than memorable, really don’t connect very well with or advance what is going on in the story.

Basically a two-person vehicle, the play is “enhanced” by three alter egos for each of the main characters who appear on a regular basis and act as a singing and dancing Greek chorus of sorts, commenting on the main characters’ states of mind and inner feelings. Director Julia Kiley, the Playhouse’s associate artistic director, makes fairly good use of this six-some, especially (in the case of the males) in a scene where Vernon and Sonia, off for a romantic weekend in Quag, experience car trouble.

The problem with the alter egos (or inner voices, if you will), is that they are indistinguishable from each other. None of them really represents a different aspect of the characters’ inner lives; they’re just there to sing and dance and fill out what otherwise would be a very shallow production.

Nathanson and Williams handle the comedy part of the show with a great deal of style, working Simon’s dialogue for all its worth, and each has a musical-comedy voice that pleases rather than overwhelms. However, it is in their duets that something strange occurs, for each of their voices is a bit quirky and when the two are put together an odd dissonance occurs that, at times, is a bit off-putting. It’s as if they’re singing in different keys.

The fact that the music and the comedy are grafted onto each other rather than elegantly merged adds to the length of They’re Playing Our Song. In a recent performance at Ivoryton, curtain was shortly after eight p.m. and, with one intermission, the final applause died away just before 11 p.m. That’s a substantial amount of time for something as lightweight as this.

They’re Playing our Song runs through Sunday, July 6. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

This review originally ran in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

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