The Same Old Song
When Sonia (Connie SaLoutos), an aspiring lyricist, meets successful composer Vernon (Dan Kelley) in They're Playing Our Song, she hesitates while searching for the right words to describe his work: "Your music is, well, universally embraced.... I don't want to use the word commercial." Ironically adjectives like commercial have plagued author Neil Simon throughout most of his career. Although one of the United States' most well-known and prolific playwrights, Simon, who began his career long ago, didn't receive critical recognition until the Eighties, when he wrote the autobiographical trilogy Brighton Beach Memoirs (1982), Biloxi Blues (1984), and Broadway Bound (1986). For most of his career, he had been accused of milking tears and force-feeding jokes without delivering much substance.
They're Playing Our Song, which debuted on Broadway at the Imperial Theater in 1979, falls into this category. Despite the intimate nature of the piece, it takes no risks. It has the Simon trademark of being emotionally present without being challenging or threatening. While the Broward Stage Door's performance is energetic and at times quite funny, the script relies on a string of jokes that are humorous but elicit little more than a chuckle from the audience.
Supposedly based on collaborators Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager, who wrote the music and lyrics respectively, They're Playing Our Song tells the story of a stormy relationship between a successful composer and a virtually unknown songwriter. In addition to Sonia and Vernon, the play has another central character: Sonia's ex-boyfriend Leon, whom we never see but who is ever present as the butt of many jokes. Leon also is the major obstacle to Vernon's relationship with Sonia, because she is always running off to rescue him.
A trio of alter egos accompanies Vernon and Sonia and appears early on in the number "Workin' It Out." Dressed identically, the alters are supposed to represent Sonia and Vernon's personalities but mainly serve as background singers and stagehands. The women (Lisa Hookalo, Stacy Schwartz, and Vicki White) are competent singers but lack charisma. The men (Randy Charleville, Andrew Fiacco, and Shawn R. Kilgore) harmonize well and are particularly funny in the hospital scene in which they wear goofy boxer shorts and play miniature pianos. Ultimately, though, the concept of the egos is much more interesting than the reality. Their presence neither improves nor harms the performance.
Simon almost always ends up with an "odd couple" in his plays, and They're Playing Our Song is no exception. Sonia is wacky, adventurous, and idealistic. Vernon is conservative, cynical, and neurotic. Sonia's words spill forth like waters from a bursting dam. Vernon's are calculated and biting, like a well-aimed arrow from an archer's bow. Although some of his lines are clever ("I tried to take a Valium, but I couldn't get my teeth unclenched" and "Talking to you is like sending out laundry -- you never know what you're going to get back"), the relationship between Sonia and Vernon never delves below the surface. It's as funny and unsatisfying as the antagonistic repartee of other Simon works, such as The Goodbye Girl.
It's been said that Hamlisch and Sager set out to write a hit that would bridge Broadway and Billboard. They did not succeed. Wistful Karen Carpenter-esque ballads dominate the musical score, and a few upbeat soft-rock refrains are thrown in for good measure. In the first few numbers, SaLoutos doesn't hit the high notes with much resonance, but her rendition of "I Still Believe in Love" is heartfelt and sonorous, making this tune the best number in the show.
Although she sings competently, what SaLoutos really brings to the role are a Marsha Mason quirkiness and Lucille Ball antics. At one point Sonia receives an alarming call from Leon, who is in the midst of a crisis, so she rushes out into the night to help him. While she's rattling off a litany of reasons for her speedy departure, she pulls her nightgown between her legs, ties a man's belt around her waist, and throws on a red cape. The slapstick moment is reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy dressing in a baggage car.
Kelley watches her with an incredulous, slack-jawed stare and finally comments, "You look like you're going to the forest to visit your grandmother." Moreover Kelley extends the humor from the moment to the scene, skillfully providing a cohesiveness to Simon's one-liners. Perhaps the best thing about the play is Kelley and SaLoutos's impeccable timing. There is a lack of chemistry between the two, but they exhibit professionalism and high energy. And they're funny. In the final analysis, the lead actors make a mediocre play entertaining.
After seven years of staging musical reviews and Jewish comedy before Broward and Palm Beach retirees, Dan Kelley finally is getting a chance to direct something different. This month Kelley, former artistic director of the Broward Stage Door Theatre, will direct Falsettoland, a gay musical comedy that depicts one of the most nontraditional bar mitzvah's of the Twentieth Century. Written by William Finn and James Lapine, the Tony Award-winning play received critical acclaim when it debuted in 1991. Kelley says some of the play's lyrics sum up its content: "It's about growing up, getting older, living on your lover's shoulder, learning love is not a crime."
Traditional roles are reversed, erased, and rewritten in the story of Jason, a twelve-year-old who is preparing for the Jewish ceremony. Jason's parents are divorced. His father, Marvin, has left wife Trina for a man named Wizzer. Trina marries Marvin's ex-psychiatrist. Throw in the "self-proclaimed lesbians from next door" and you've got a truly unique celebration of young manhood. The juxtaposition of a traditional occasion with an untraditional environment is clever, funny, and moving. Explains Kelley: "I always wanted to produce Falsettoland because I was transfixed by the music when I first heard the CD." The play received a Drama Desk Award for its music and lyrics. Kelley adds that it is not only the content that makes this play unique. "It's a musical that moves me profoundly and in unpredictable ways," he says. "You laugh when you don't want to laugh. You cry during the funny parts."
Falsettoland will debut at the Broward Stage Door's newly acquired 26th Street Theater, formerly the Wilton Playhouse, in North Fort Lauderdale on June 23. The owners of the Stage Door spent $150,000 to renovate the space, which opened this past January. While the 26th Street Theatre has not been slated as a venue for more experimental productions, it's refreshing to see the company has something new to sing about
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