Sure, they wrote many of the songs the whole world sang, but could neurotic composer Vernon Gersch and free-spirited lyricist Sonia Walsk make beautiful music together as a loving couple?
That’s the question Neil Simon, Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager explore in the late 1970s musical “They’re Playing Our Song” that’s on stage through New Year’s Eve at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre in West Bloomfield.
Vernon, a pop music composer and winner of two Grammy Awards and an Academy Award, is in for a shock when he answers the door and finds his possible future collaborator is nothing like what he expected. For starters, Sonia is 20 minutes late for their first appointment – a major faux pas – and she wears only second-hand clothes, much of which were costumes once worn in various productions around New York. Plus, she’s flighty, opinionated and wants to talk way too much about their feelings.
He hates all that. But he falls in love with her anyway.
Despite their differences, their professional partnership quickly moves into the bedroom. But the specter of Sonia’s never-seen ex-lover haunts the partners at every turn. Can Sonia ever let go of Leon and her past – and Vernon his anger? Or are BOTH relationships – professional and personal – doomed to fail because of it?
Those familiar with the genesis of the plot already know the ultimate answer to that question. (The script is a semi-autobiographical look at the real-life relationship between Hamlisch and Sager. And no, neither affiliation lasts long.) However, Simon’s examination of mixing love and work proves that couplings, like collaborations, aren’t always pretty – but they sure can be funny.
Although Simon’s script is filled with his signature witty one-liners and engaging verbal wordplay, “You’re Playing Our Song” is showing its age. Written, set and initially staged in the midst of the woman’s movement and the disco era, some moments – especially a dust-up when Vernon calls Sonia “lady” – now seem silly or tripe.
Yet even more disconcerting is this: Much of the humor isn’t very funny in this rather serious interpretation by director Harold Jurkiewicz. And missing – at least at last Sunday afternoon’s performance – is that passionate “spark” the audience needs to see between the lovers if we’re to care – and believe – what happens to them.
Jurkiewicz is especially adept at moving his actors about the stage, and the beautifully choreographed scene changes are a joy to watch. All technical aspects of the show – sets by Christopher H. Carothers, lights by Elaine Hendiks-Smith and costumes by Mary Copenhagen – are equally top notch.
The result, then, is an excellently staged production that seems to lack emotion.
Both Alan Ball (Vernon) and Teri Clark Linden (Sonia) are hardworking stage veterans who create interesting and believable characters, sing well and bring tons of enthusiasm to their roles. But as a couple, they don’t click.
Six other actors play the “voices” inside that main characters’ heads. The angelic tones of Katie C. Pierce, Annie Radcliffe and Renee Turner are especially sweet.
(FOR “REVIEW BOX”)
‘They’re Playing Our Song’
Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company at the Aaron DeRoy Theatre on the campus of the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Rd., West Bloomfield. Wed., Thu., Sat. & Sun., through Dec. 31. Tickets: $33-$39. For information: 248-788-2900 or http://www.jettheatre.org