Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

They're Playing Our Song
Stages Saint Louis

Also see Richard's review of Hands on a Hardbody

Seth Rettberg and Maria Couch
Reviewing this show is like fighting with an octopus. Just when you think you can land one good punch for one weak point of the evening (or compliment a strong point), the whole show shifts around and grabs your feet out from under you, with a devious, swirling tentacle.

On the one hand, Stages simply does not put on shabby shows. The performers and costumes are all excellent. And the direction and choreography (by Stephen Bourneuf) and the lights are all very good. And the sets range in quality from good to excellent. (The music is always pre-recorded, to maintain some semblance of cost-control). It doesn't hurt, either, that Stages is smack-dab in the middle of Kirkwood, Missouri: where a large, good-natured elderly population supports something like three different theater groups every year.

But you can't put on "popular" fare every summer, like Stages does, without being forced into the occasional compromise like this one. And please don't tell me They're Playing Our Song ran for nearly 1,100 performances on Broadway, because the "popular" Abie's Irish Rose did even better, despite starting out on the eve of the Great Depression (and running for 2,327 performances). If you just want to be popular, please just open an amusement park.

They're Playing Our Song, from 50 years later, is written by some guy named Neil Simon, and centers on a composer and a lyricist—with music for the show written by Marvin Hamlisch, and lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, who were also a couple at the time.

Anyway, as far as I can tell, they and the august Mr. Simon drew from the business model of Tin Pan Alley: reasoning that (in 1978) disco was a very big deal, and therefore the world must be crying out for a "disco-musical." And, well, here we are 36 years later. (With all due respect to the Kirkwood audience, they were already too old for disco, even 36 years ago.)

But I digress.

Seth Rettberg is very fine, nay excellent as the Hamlisch character (Vernon)—he really handles the singing and the jokes beautifully in act one. But Neil Simon's own style of comedy (here) is self-loathing one minute, and disdainful the next. It's ultimately distancing for the unfortunate Mr. Rettberg, who watches as the text's tide of self-absorbed fussiness carries his laughs farther and farther out to sea.

Maria Couch as Sonia (the lyricist) gets the better end of the bargain, as her character seems to have survived beyond the 1980s and '90s and aughts, so that we can actually see her living and breathing among us today: a free-spirit with a very genuine heart on her sleeve (albeit a sleeve that's woven of some hoary Neil Simon jokes about Broadway in the 1970s, because Sonia is inexplicably fond of theatrical costumes as everyday wear).

They are extremely, extremely well backed-up by three more "Sonias" and three more "Vernons," as each one's "egos." Because, of course, in New York, you simply have to fret over your stampeded ego with your therapist (and yes, there are jokes about therapists, too).

But these six "egos" (with an endless array of furiously executed, outdated disco dance steps) are perhaps too sharp and too poised and too perfect. Remember, in The Producers, there's always that one girl who doesn't look like a perfect Rockette? Or in The Book Of Mormon, how the second banana doesn't look anything like at all like the other good Mormon boys? Or, even if you've ever been to the Ice Capades: there was that one poor girl who could almost never catch up with the grand, rotating kick-line of all the other, impeccable ice skaters, swirling around majestically in the rink, and that one slow-poke skating furiously, around and around, just behind, desperate to catch up? Anyone could relate to her.

But there's no vulnerability in this piece for us to cherish. And beyond this Sonia, there's not much heart either. (She has an often-talked about, sad-sack ex-boyfriend, but we never catch sight of him, as pity or kindness is reduced to some kind of weakness, apparently. On top of that, with all the ruthless dancing perfection on stage, the long intervals of energetic dance become even more empty than is usual for disco.

Here, maybe we just need one fat "Vernon ego" and one sweet little baby dumpling of a "Sonia ego," to take the edge off the dancing, so we can stop being appalled at the (smiling, but) chilly, remorseless precision of Mr. Bourneuf's choreography. It's awfully flashy, and by "awfully flashy," I mean "awful" in a non-Himalayan sense of the word. In fact, it probably amounts to what I'd call "gay fascism," (and, yes, I'm allowed): "where everything's perfect for Mr. De Bris."

Through June 29, 2014, at the south end of the Kirkwood Recreation Center, 111 South Geyer. For more information visit www.stagesstlouis.org. or call (314) 821-2407.

Vernon Gersch: Seth Rettberg*
Sonia Walks: Maria Couch*
The Male Egos of Vernon Gersch: Craig Blake*, Nic Thompson*, Aaron Umsted*
The Female Egos of Sonia Walsk: Brittany Rose Hammond*, Sarah Rolleston*, Bronwyn Tarboton*

Director and Choreographer: Stephen Bourneuf
Stage Manager: Shawn Pryby*
Costume Design: Lou Bird
Musical Director: Lisa Campbell Albert
Scenic Design: James Wolk
Lighting Design: Matthew McCarthy
Orchestral Design: Stuart M. Elmore

* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association

Photo: Peter Wochniak

-- Richard T. Green

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