Theatre review: Greek chorus is the brightest spot in 'They're Playing Our Song'

For the News-DemocratJune 9, 2014 

Composer Marvin Hamlisch put his stamp on the soundtrack of the 1970s, with "The Way We Were," "A Chorus Line," "The Sting" and other hits that comprise his remarkable legacy.

The clever and tuneful musical he co-wrote with former paramour and songwriting partner Carol Bayer Sager, "They're Playing Our Song," is one of those contemporary shows that was wildly popular and provided a time capsule for its day. But it never never had the staying power of the era's more bombastic productions like Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" and Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Evita."

The romantic comedy, loosely based on the songwriting duo's working and romantic relationship, was a 1979 hit on Broadway with Robert Klein and Lucie Arnaz, running for 1,082 performances. After the national tour brought Lorna Luft here to the American, then Lucie and her husband Laurence Luckinbill entertained Muny audiences in 1982 with a delightful staging as the mismatched couple. Locally, it never resurfaced until now.

So it was with great anticipation that I went to the revived production by Stages St. Louis, which has produced some of the most outstanding musical theater in the area for 28 years.

Vernon (Seth Rettberg) is a very successful composer and Sonia (Maria Couch) a rising songwriter when they are partnered to work together. Both are neurotic New Yorkers in their own way, with distinctive personality traits. You know the unlikely duo will be mad about each other, and then deal with high-concept conflicts that put happily-ever-after in question.

Until the title song kicked up the charm and wit a notch, the first act was flat, and the main duo's chemistry was as rocky as the relationship depicted. The kooky heroine was miscast, and what little empathy I had for such a co-dependent character who can't break off ties to her old boyfriend had evaporated by intermission.

The show's saving grace was the adroit delivery of Neil Simon's quips by Rettberg, who apparently had mastered the comedic maestro's rhythms much faster than Couch. The out-of-sync feeling continued in the second act.

It's nice to be reminded how funny Neil Simon can be about love, and how cheesy and comforting a catchy disco beat can be 35 years after its heyday.

And the Greek chorus -- three similarly dressed men and women mimicking Vernon and Sonia's inner thoughts -- was the brightest spot in the show, with snappy choreography by director Stephen Bourneuf and sunny delivery by Craig Blake, Brittany Rose Hammond, Sarah Rolleston, Bronwyn Tarboton, Nic Thompson and Aaron Umsted. Any one of those girls would have been better than Couch, whose lackluster interpretation demonstrated a rote grasp of the material.

The show features multiple sets, and that's a remarkable feat these days, to have such detailed sets that must be changed several times. Set designer James Wolk's work was exemplary. Lou Bird's costumes were also noteworthy, perfectly capturing the dawn of polyester, and the whimsical hand-me-down stage outfits favored by thrifty Sonia.

Misty water-colored memories of this play are best left in the corners of my mind. So it will be the laughter that I remember because the show never came alive in that light-hearted romp way I expected.

What: "They're Playing Our Song"

Who: Stages St. Louis

When: through June 29

Where: Robert G. Reim Theatre, Kirkwood Community Center, 111 S. Geyer Road, Kirkwood, Mo.

Tickets and information: 314-821-2407; www.stagesstlouis.org

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