Theater review: 'They're Playing Our Song' by Reprise
Here we have a story of two people who want to be together but are kept apart by stumbling blocks of their own making. It's a frustration shared by those of us in the audience for "They're Playing Our Song," for although we want to fall for the show, we keep getting tripped up.
The frustration is all the keener because with this season-opening production, the musical-revival specialists of Reprise Theatre Company continue their progression toward ever more thoroughly realized, top-tier presentations (which materialize, miraculously, out of ridiculously brief rehearsal periods). What's more, the leading lady they've engaged, Stephanie J. Block, delivers a don't-miss performance.
But, oh, what an annoying show.
The musical by Neil Simon, composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager presents a highly fictionalized version of Hamlisch and Bayer Sager's personal and professional relationship. The show opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in December 1978, then headed to Broadway, where it played for 2 1/2 years.
On Broadway, the show contained just nine songs, rendering it more a play with music than a full-out musical. That play, alas, is a wan variation on Simon's "The Goodbye Girl."
Vernon Gersch (played by Reprise's artistic director, Jason Alexander) is an award-winning composer, Sonia Walsk (Block) a rising lyricist. When they meet, at their agents' urging, to ponder a partnership, nervous energy crackles between them, but it's the sort of neurotic jitteriness and smart-alecky back-and-forth that exists only in Simon's romantic comedies of this vintage, not in real life.
The only other presences are the would-be lovebirds' inner Greek choruses (three singers apiece), which materialize in moments of duress. This is but one of many contrivances, the most irritating of which is a character, Sonia's ex, who's never seen but whose endlessly inventoried theatrics hinder the songwriters' romance.
Alexander delivers nebbishy charm and sings in a pleasant pop baritone -- at first. Late in Wednesday's opening performance, he sounded ragged and out of his range.
In the flighty, voluble character that she's expected to play, Block manages to also convey fierce intelligence and emotional resilience. And then there's her 11 o'clock number, built to such a peak of bittersweet feeling that many in the audience finish the number wearing, as she does, a mask of tears. Block's pop-focused mezzo is one of the best in the business. Thank goodness that, after going so underused in "9 to 5," it's being heard again, to such shiver-inducing effect.
Revisions to the Reprise version, especially in the second act, boost the song count to 11, three of which are different from the Broadway score. An added song, "One Hello" (Hamlisch and Bayer Sager's theme to the movie "I Ought to Be in Pictures"), helps tidy the ending. But the mock melodrama of Vernon's inner tango about the ex, "Leon," is truly grating.
Still, director Lonny Price polishes it all to a sheen, on a set, by John Iacovelli, that whimsically places the entire story atop a giant late-1970s turntable. The Top 40s-sounding pop ballads seem, quite appropriately, to emanate from its flanking speakers. I think I once owned that stereo system.
-- Daryl H. Miller
"They're Playing Our Song," Freud Playhouse at UCLA. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 10. $70 and $75. (310) 825-2101 or www.reprise.org. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.
Photo: Stephanie J. Block and Jason Alexander in a getting-to-know-you moment of "They're Playing Our Song." Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times.