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updated: 9/1/2011 6:50 AM

Fox Valley Rep delivers with 'Song'

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  • Lyricist Sonia Walsk (Dara Cameron) and composer Vernon Gersch (Michael Mahler) head off for a spontaneous romantic getaway in Fox Valley Repertory's production of the 1979 Broadway musical comedy "They're Playing Our Song."

      Lyricist Sonia Walsk (Dara Cameron) and composer Vernon Gersch (Michael Mahler) head off for a spontaneous romantic getaway in Fox Valley Repertory's production of the 1979 Broadway musical comedy "They're Playing Our Song."
    Courtesy of Trademan Photography/Fox Valley Repert

  • Lyricist Sonia Walsk (Dara Cameron, right) records a song demo called "I Still Believe in Love" while composer Vernon Gersch (Michael Mahler) listens in the sound booth in Fox Valley Repertory's production of the 1979 Broadway musical comedy "They're Playing Our Song."

      Lyricist Sonia Walsk (Dara Cameron, right) records a song demo called "I Still Believe in Love" while composer Vernon Gersch (Michael Mahler) listens in the sound booth in Fox Valley Repertory's production of the 1979 Broadway musical comedy "They're Playing Our Song."
    Courtesy of Trademan Photography/Fox Valley Repert

 
By Scott Morgan

It's odd that the hit 1979 Broadway musical comedy "They're Playing Our Song" doesn't get staged more often. Fox Valley Repertory's current production certainly makes a strong case for the show, but also highlights what could go wrong if the right people aren't engaged.

On the plus side, "They're Playing Our Song" features a laugh-filled script by Neil Simon ("Barefoot in the Park," "Lost in Yonkers"), plus a catchy disco-era score by multi-award-winning songwriters Marvin Hamlisch ("A Chorus Line," "The Way We Were") and Carole Bayer Sager ("That's What Friends are For," "Arthur"). And in terms of the bottom line, any budget-conscious theater company would find the small cast size of "They're Playing Our Song" to be very attractive.

But one towering hurdle to make "They're Playing Our Song" believable is finding just the right super-talented leading couple. Though "They're Playing Our Song" calls for a minimum chorus of six, the show is essentially a two-hander that wouldn't work without a couple with impeccable comic timing, powerful musical skills and a spark-filled romantic chemistry.

Fox Valley Repertory and director Jonathan Berry hedged their bets by casting a real-life married couple to play uptight composer Vernon Gersch and the eccentric lyricist Sonia Walsk (fictional stand-ins for Hamlisch and Sager in their own cute and quirky late-1970s romantic relationship). Luckily for audiences, Michael Mahler and Dara Cameron definitely deliver the goods to make everyone a winner.

As the world-famous (and slightly conceited) composer Vernon, Mahler assuredly brings a wonderful sense of verisimilitude to the role since he himself is a multi-threat singer/actor/musician/songwriter. Director Berry certainly advertises that fact by positioning a grand piano center stage throughout the whole show so Mahler can skillfully tickle the ivories while singing his songs in full view of the audience.

Cameron's performance as the ditsy Sonia doesn't come off quite as effortlessly as Mahler's Vernon. She may look fetching in all the wacky theater castoff costumes created by Ricky Lurie, but the ever-tardy and kooky role of Sonia feels more like a put-on character for Cameron rather than something second nature. But where it counts in terms of chemistry, comic timing and singing chops, Cameron holds up her end of the bargain to make palpable all of the breezy romantic comedy.

Barry (who is soon to make his off-Broadway directing debut with the Gift Theatre hit "Suicide, Inc.") stages a brisk and cheery production that also slightly mocks the show's 1970s setting via his somewhat underutilized chorus, which shifts scenery while executing vocal "oohs" and disco groove moves. (It's too bad that the talented chorus of Rodrigo Ignacio Crus, Madeline Duffy-Feins, Leah Morrow, Doug Pawlik, Sara Sevigny and Matthew Sherbach all don't have more to do in the show).

Music director Allison Kane also keeps things moving along with a great combo band (onstage behind a turquoise curtain) that captures the sound and pulse of 1970s New York.

Now, "They're Playing Our Song" isn't a structurally perfect show thanks to its score that leans more heavily toward pop-style singles rather than plot-driving songs. Plus, Simon's script becomes repetitiously exasperating the more Sonia repeatedly goes back to Leon, her never-seen ex-boyfriend.

Yet, if what you want is a bona fide laugh-filled show that also serves as a great date night out, "They're Playing Our Song" definitely delivers in this well-cast production. It's also likely that you won't see this show performed at such a high talent level for some time.

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