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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
They're Playing Our Song
Some questions that come to mind. . .
Question: So how does this chamber musical hold up?
Answer: Fine and dandy.
Question: Has it become dated?
Answer: Though it has a certain old-fashioned charm, it's not dated.
Question: Are there difficulties that have kept it from being revived more often?
Answer: Yes, for two reasons. First, though the costs of a small show like this should work in favor of a revival, the public taste for ever more pyrotechnic razzle-dazzle mitigates against the success of more modest musicals. The Avenue Q story is a heartening exception, though there are more examples of shorter and less spectacular runs for small scale musicals like A New Brain, which featured They're Playing Our Song star Chip Zien. Second, this isn't a big tuner in the sense that just reading the song list sends the tunes bouncing into your ears. All ten songs are catchy but only "I Still Believe In Love" fits the big hit embraced by at least one major recording star category. This production validates that hit status by having the second act reprise sung by Johnny Mathis.
Question: Do director James Warwick and Chip Zien as Vernon Gersch and Amanda Watkins as Sonia Walsk capture the show's reality based romantic spirit, land Simon's many one-liners with flair and also do justice to the music?
Answer: A resounding triple yes.
Those one-liners represent Simon at his funniest with some of the jokes invariably drowned out by the audience's laughter. "When You're In My Arm"s may be the only song to stick to your ears, but there's a lot to enjoy in number like the exuberant title song and the delightful "Fill in the Words"
Warwick's affinity for this character driven show, more a play with music and some dancing, than a traditional musical, is evident in his not rushing the non-musical scenes, fluidly integrating the musical numbers and giving free reign to the high energy fun provided by the six performers who serve as the equivalent of a hilarious Greek chorus. That chorus is most amusing when its three women function as The Voices of Sonia and its three men as The Voices of Vernon.
With his Woody Allen-like looks and persona, Zien is totally convincing as the the tightly strung, workaholic composer who falls hopelessly in love with the discombobulated Sonia Walsk. Zien's singing voice is not great, but good enough.
Amanda Watkins, like Zien, is ideally cast as the ditzy, big-hearted lyricist. She's not only lovely to look at but has a voice to match. Whether it's their acting or the fact that they're playing reality-based characters, or a combination of both, they come across as real people see-sawing their way towards a real and lasting relationship.
The production gets a strong assist from the talented Carl Sprague, who also created the set that is something of a star in its own right of the Berkshire Theatre Festival's currently running The Misanthrope. Using a series of movable props, Sprague enables the story to move through an impressive variety of settings in Manhattan, Long Island and Hollywood, at one point even providing a real Triumph convertible.
The musicians are well-positioned at the rear of the stage, visible through a scrim that at first looks like an apartment's glass windows. Arthur Oliver, another outstanding Berkshires designer, dresses Sonia in a parade of outrageous outfits purportedly from dismantled shows. The print dresses worn by two of Sonia's alter egos were no doubt selected to deliberately demonstrate some of the more tasteless styles of late 1970s. I found their awfulness distracting and the show's only sign of excess.
No review of this show would be complete without mentioning the venue where it's playing, the Berkshire Music Hall on Union Street, Ray Schilke's new name for the long abandoned Public Theater he's recently refurbished. Another old theater just a few blocks away, the Colonial, that for many years buried its theatrical identity in back of a paint store is still more of a work in progress. And so Playing Our Song is a joint venture of these two theatrical enterprises to preview their future activities -- the Colonial's to produce old and new plays, and Mr. Schilke's to make his theater available to theatrical organizations without homes of their own.
At this point I can only comment on the physical plant of the Berkshire Music Hall. It's a a crisp, clean space, with a nicely spruced up and welcoming lobby and enough seating to accommodate a large audience with good sightlines in whichever of the comfortable college style seats you sit in. While there's still work to be done (like the unfinished ceilings), the theater is clearly ready for business.
The real make or break factor in both of these new-old theaters' future is the quality of future content. This production of They're Playing Our Song is a good first step in the right direction.
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