By Bary Reszel
They’re Playing Our Song, the beloved near-biopic of storied composer Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line) and lyricist Carol Bayer Sager (“That’s What Friends Are For”) is now, sigh, a period piece, along with other remnants of the Carter administration. Hamlisch, like the musical’s fictional therapist Tannenbaum, has died. But, thankfully, this story and both of these artists’ delicious music live on.
Thirty-eight years after a host of Broadway noms followed by three years on Broadway and decades of regional/community productions around the world, Chicago’s intimate storefront theatre, Brown Paper Box, is staging this charmingly melodic comedy showcasing the meeting, collaboration and love affair of the well-matched neurotic composing duo. The book is written by Neil Simon with music and lyrics by Hamlisch and Sager. A full production history and plot synopsis is here.
Director/Choreographer Dan Spagnuolo‘s cast of eight young talents sings the daylights out of the ballad-laden, catchy songbook. Highlights include “Fallin’,” “If He/She Really Knew Me,” “Just for Tonight,” “I Still Believe in Love” and “Fill in the Words,” along with the title song.
While TPOS is definitionally a two-person show, composer Vernon Gersch (Hamlisch, tremendously portrayed by Dan Gold) and lyricist Sonia Walsk (Sager, played lovingly by Carmen Risi) are backed up by the personified voices in their heads. “The girls” are three lovely powerhouses: Elissa Newcorn, Ariana Cappuccitti and Denalis Resto. Vernon’s terrific “Boys” include Mike Danovich, Bradley Halverson and John Marshall, Jr.
In one reviewer’s observation, Spgnuolo’s extended stage use of these “voices,” together with the overall vocal performance, is the hallmark of this production. While the script calls for generally limited use of the omniscient celestials representing the two leads’ various moods, the director expands their presence, sometimes even bringing out just one to enhance the particular emotion of the scene. To wit, the first act’s tender “If He Really Knew Me,” features a lovely ballet by Cappuccitti accompanying Risi’s vocals and ending in a sensual commingling where the two actresses become one.
So, too, does Marshall deserve plaudits as Cappuccitti’s dance partner throughout the piece. While the small stage at the Rivendell Theatre hinders full-out big dance numbers, it’s clear these are the two hoofers in the cast.
But even with expansion of the voices, TPOS is reliant on the strength of its two leads. Both deliver. Gold and Risi have a palpable chemistry that comes through despite their overselling of the neurotic (“Two flakes are the start of a snowstorm”). Their characterization during the production’s first weekend was overall too frenetic, too big and too fast, but there’s no doubt that the more they’re on stage together, Gold’s Vernon and Risi’s Sonia will evolve from caricature to more human authenticity—neurotic though they’ll remain
That said, Gold’s vocals are a particular long-lasting memory of attending this production. He’s certainly destined for bigger stages after his perfect casting as Vernon. Risi, who certainly hits all the notes in a low songbook written for alto Lucie Arnez, has her best vocal moment near the close of “Just for Tonight,” at the end of Act 1. “There it is!” reads the note by this reviewer when she dropped a seeming vocal restraint and let go. (It wouldn’t be surprising to learn she was vocally tender at the opening.) But again, as the run proceeds, there’s no doubt her unlimited talent will shine and even the showstopping ballad in Act 2, “I Still Believe in Love,” will be sung with the fullness it deserves.
Musical Director Iliana Atkins delivers excellent musicianship of the Hamlisch score, and Costume Designer Kate Stezer Kamphausen outfits the cast period perfectly. But Brown Paper Box gets a nit on the set design. Vernon’s piano and his two Grammys and an Oscar need to be more realistic. In fact, they may be the only set pieces really needed in an otherwise black box. That would have been an improvement, though the swanky 70s “wallpaper” is an admittedly nice touch.
But the real take away here is that Brown Paper Box is adding another bit of sunshine to this glorious Chicagoland summer. Patrons lucky enough to attend They’re Playing Our Song might just realize the song’s for them.
Brown Paper Box Co. presents, “They’re Playing Our Song,” through August 20 at Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.