Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Thalian Association opens “They’re Playing Our Song” on the main stage at Thalian Hall. The sweet, romantic comedy follows the trials and tribulations of a songwriting team trying to decide if they are collaborating personally or professionally.
“They’re Playing Our Song” is not an incredibly well-known musical. The response most theatre people have when they hear the title is, “Isn’t that Neil Simon?” Yes, comedic genius Neil Simon did write the book for the musical. The lyricist, Carole Bayer Sager, and composer, Marvin Hamlisch, are the real-life inspiration for the characters of Sonia (Shannon Profita) and Vernon (Jeff Hidek). Vernon and Sonia are matched up by their agents to collaborate on writing hit songs. The same week “They’re Playing Our Song” opened at Thalian Hall, Cinematique hosted in the studio theatre the film “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.” It covers a show that was destined for success: “Merrily We Roll Along.” The creative team of Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince were adapting the Kaufman and Hart play. With that kind of track record and genius, what could go wrong? Well, in the case of “Merrily We Roll Along,” the show closed early and was a flop that eventually found its feet years later in revivals.
The film finds a way of showing just how beautiful and complicated both the creative process and human experience are. Similarly, “They’re Playing Our Song” had a creative team that seemed unstoppable, but something doesn’t quite gel in the script. It is a concept piece: Outside of Sonia and Vernon, the only other performers onstage are the three-person Greek chorus that represent our protagonists’ innermost thoughts. Sydney Smith Martin, Johanna Winkel and Alexandra Nevill follow Sonia and are desperately trying to get her out of her own way. Sam Robison, Dom Gibbs and Ty Myatt represent Vernon and hit one of the visual high notes in the show when they appear onstage in lamé hospital gowns during the song “Fill in the Words.”
This show makes extraordinary demands upon the leads. Even with the help of the Greek chorus, with a single story line, Profita and Hidek must hold the audience’s attention for two hours. It’s not a show of big-production dance numbers; though, “Workin’ It Out,” the song that introduces the chorus, is a lot of fun. The song explores the possibility of Sonia and Vernon’s collaboration musically, their different working styles and their different ways of approaching each other.
“When You’re in My Arms”—the ballad that opens Act 2 and includes the choruses again—captures the beauty of moments alone with the person you truly love. Hidek has a lovely voice and Profita clearly wants to belt out a soaring refrain, but the score never gives her a chance to really show off what she can do. For the leads this score is more of a marathon: They sing every song. So, unlike a typical musical—with secondary leads bringing in memorable tunes and character actors taking at least one, before doing a bang-up finale with the ensemble—at the end of each act, these two do not get a chance to really concentrate on the big show-stopping solos that are hallmarks of musical theatre leads. When they finally do get things figured out in their relationship, they are sweet as a couple. But they don’t seem to have any friends—and that should be a red flag for each of them. Frankly, I don’t think I would be up to shouldering the emotional burden of being the only friend to either of them. Hidek’s Vernon is driven and successful, but still a little infantile emotionally. Profita’s Sonia is a whirlwind of exhaustion. She cannot focus on a moment, person or topic long enough to take a breath and be in the same room with Vernon. The average dervish could take lessons from her. Where does she find the energy?
Terry Collins’ set designs are fabulous. From Vernon’s perfectly decorated expensive apartment to Sonia’s artful dump with the objet trouvé look. Collins really makes each locale pop, from the kitschy beach cottage to the equally hip discotheque (director Cathy Street set the show like a ‘70s sitcom).
I would love to be able to rewrite “They’re Playing Our Song.” To begin with, it needs a subplot. There is too much pressure on the leads to carry a two hour-plus show on their shoulders with nothing much going on plot-wise.
“How much would Shakespeare have gotten in there?” my date half-joked on the way home.
“Are you kidding?” I responded. “A set of twins, mistaken identity, false arrest and a couple of murders, at least!”
Alas the only plot point remains: Two people cannot figure out how to work together or be in love or both. Frankly, it would make a fine one-act, but it is just not enough for a full-length show.
Hamlisch didn’t really carry the weight on the music writing endeavor either. There are only nine songs in the show—and two of them are reprised to the point of irritation. It’s not like he didn’t know better; this is the composer who wrote the score for “A Chorus Line.”
Still, for the most part, the script is very funny, filled with Simon’s signature fast-paced banter. Hidek will win audience’s hearts when he sings “Fallin’.” And Profita’s “I Still Believe In Love” will remind you why you brought your Valentine to the theatre. And the chorus will remind you to not take life too seriously.