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They're Playing Our Song

Cranwell Resort

Did I do something to make you nervous? ---Vernon
You won 3 Emmies and an Oscar ---Sonia
This exchange during Vernon and Sonia's first meeting, brings into the play one of their numerous problems, competition. Her directness goes counter to his more restrained tendencies, so that he circumvents one of her questions with "You don't just divulge your whole personality. It comes out a little at a time, like toothpaste"

The Porches Inn

Amanda Watkins and Chip Zien
Amanda Watkins and Chip Zien (Photo: Kevin Sprague)
What better way to celebrate the new life of two once entertainment-filled Pittsfield theaters than with an old musical -- to be specific, the twenty-five-year old hit, They're Playing Our Song, which ran for1082 performances on Broadway (from 2/11/1979 - 9/6/1981 and starred Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein). The show's book by Neil Simon, the only musical he wrote from scratch, was seeded by the real life romance of the show's composer, Marvin Hamlisch, and lyricist, Carole Bayer Sager. They were married at the time of the opening -- though the s how's happily ever after ending didn't apply to their relationship. Simon fictionalized the Hamlisch/Sager romance so that a composer named Vernon Gersch needs a new lyricist, who turns out to be madcap Sonia Walsk. Their first notes are out of tune. She's awed by Vernon's Oscar and Emmy awards. He's put off by her disorganized ways and unimpressed by the cast-off peasant dress from a production of The Cherry Orchard she dons for their first meeting. It's clearly not a match made in heaven -- at least not until the final curtain.

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.

Book by Neil Simon
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager
Directed by James Warwick
Choreography: Jayme McDaniel Music Director: Jason DeBord
Cast: Chip Zien as Vernon Gersch and Amanda Watkins as Sonia Walsk; also Farah Alvin, Pamela Bob, Juliana Stefanov as The Voices of Sonia Walsk; Dale Hensley, Ron DeStefano, Alan Souza as the Voices oe Voice of Phil the Engineer.
Scenic Design: Carl Sprague
Lights: Jeff Davis
Sound: Raymond Schilke
Costumes: Arthur Oliver
Musicians: Jason DeBord/ conductor, piano; Bruce Krasin/piccolo, flute, clarinet, alto sax; Carl Oman/bass guitar; Joe Rose/Synthesizer (alternate); Donald Sosin/synthesizer; Jeff Stevens/ trumpet; David Wampler/trombone; Peter Wise/percussion
Colonial Theatre, at Berkshire Music Hall, Union Street, Pittsfield, MASS
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or
August 18 - 29, 2004
Review by Elyse Sommer based on 20th press opening
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Fallin'
  • Workin' It Out
  • If He Really Knew Me
  • They're Playing Our Song
  • If He Really Knew Me (Reprise)
  • Right
  • Just For Tonight
Act Two
  • When You're in My Arms
  • I Still Believe In Love
  • Fill in the Words
deb and harry's wonderful things -  crafts .  yarns

historic red lion inn

Berkshire Hikes Book Cover

Great Places to Eat, Shop, Stay
Berkshire Inns
Sheffield Pottery
In Lee:
Pamela Loring Gifts
Morgan House Inn & Restaurant
In Lenox:
Andrew De Vries Sculptures

In Williamstown
Pappa Charlie's Deli
Thai Garden
Listing information:

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