Two years after Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical Chapter Two chronicled the widowed playwright’s second-chanceat-happiness marriage to Marsha Mason, his They’re Playing Our Song brought to the Broadway stage a fictionalized version of another real-life romance, that of songwriting partners Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager, this time told as a musical comedy featuring a dozen original songs by the selfsame team.

Reprise Musical Theatre now gives They’re Playing Our Song what well may be its first major L.A. production since its World Premiere at the Ahmanson in 1978, and though two hours and forty-five minutes is a tad long for what is virtually a two-person show, length hardly matters when a production is as all-around entertaining as this one.

Jason Alexander is superstar pop music composer Vernon Gersch and Stephanie J. Block is Sonia Walsk, the up-and-coming lyricist who becomes his partner in song and in life. The couple “meet cute” in Vernon’s Manhattan high-rise apartment with Sonia remarking on how light Vernon’s Oscar is, to which he quickly comes back with “They’re chocolate inside.” Despite Vernon’s misgivings about Sonia’s ditziness (her wardrobe consists entirely of costumes she’s inherited from friends’ theatrical productions), he agrees to take a chance on the attractive, quirky newbie.

Unfortunately for their partnership (business and otherwise), Sonia seems unable to detach herself from Leon, her ex, as needy and troubled a character as has not appeared onstage in a Broadway musical. That’s right. Though we never see poor Leon, his presence is felt each time Sonia is a day or more late for a work session, or when he interrupts the couple on the first night they almost sleep together, or when Sonia lends her homeless ex her apartment. Though the latter event does convince Sonia, suitcases in hand, to move in with Vernon, it is not the last we’ll hear of poor, pathetic offstage Leon.

With only eleven songs, three of which are new to the Reprise Production, They’re Playing Our Song is that musical theater rarity, a full-length straight-play-with-songs, allowing its lead performers to show off their comedic and dramatic gifts in a way that few musicals do, while at the same time giving them some absolutely terrific songs to sing.

There’s a nostalgic bit of Seinfeld sarcasm to Alexander’s winning performance as Vernon, but sincerity and heart as well, and some first-rate musical chops which the triple-threat has honed in numerous Broadway and regional shows. Broadway star Block, making what is essentially her “legit” play debut, proves herself a comedienne extraordinaire (with more dialog than she’d normally have in half a dozen Wickeds), and when she opens her mouth to sing, it’s absolute bliss. The pair have terrific chemistry together, making their pairing a match made in musical theater heaven.

Since what would a pop song be without backup singers, They’re Playing Our Song’s original creative team came up with an ingenious idea—to have a sextet of onstage “Voices” sing the thoughts that Sonia and Vernon hear inside their heads, the six alter egos popping out of the scenery whenever there’s an up-tempo number. At Reprise, they are the all-around sensational Daniel Guzman, Jamey Hood, Christa Jackson, Dennis Kyle, Sylvia MacCalla, and Christopher Zenner, a sextet of L.A.’s best musical theater performers. Director Lonny Price (at his imaginative best) and choreographer Josh Rhodes find numerous clever ways to integrate the Voices into the action, including some snappy 1970s dance steps.

Hamlisch and Sager have reunited professionally to add several songs to the Reprise production. The very funny “Leon” lets Vernon and the Voices plan the titular nemesis’s demise, and “One Hello” (from the 1982 movie “I Ought To Be In Pictures”) gives Reprise’s They’re Playing Our Song the socko climactic ballad the original lacked. Best of all the added songs is “If You Remember Me” from the 1979 Jon Voight-Ricky Schroeder weeper The Champ, surely one of the most gorgeous ballads the songwriting duo ever created. Sung by Sonia just after her seemingly final breakup with Vernon, the song takes the place of the too upbeat “I Still Believe In Love” and gives Block the chance to wow the audience with one of the most magnificent voices and vocal performances heard on a Broadway or Reprise stage. The New York-based star had me in tears from the song’s first bar in a performance that reminded me how much the one-time L.A. musical theater staple is missed since Broadway snatched her away.

Music director Bruce Kiesling conducts the stellar onstage Reprise orchestra. John Iacovelli’s inspired scenic design turns the stage into a giant turntable which converts into Vernon’s and Sonia’s apartments, a ‘70s disco, and even a hospital room. Jared A. Sayeg lights it brilliantly, as we have come to expect from the brilliant young lighting designer. Kate Bergh’s costumes wittily re-imagine the 1970s through the eyes of the fictional stage characters whose outfits Sonia (and her Voices) have inherited. (Virtually all the costumes, male and female, are replicated in quadruplicate to be worn by the Voices as well.) Philip G. Allen’s sound design is top-notch, as is Kevin Williams’ properties design. As the orchestra plays the Overture (the original production’s Entr’acte), projection designer Karyl Newman has put together a memory-inducing montage of 1978 celebrities. Brad Enlow is technical director, Jill Gold is production stage manager, and Matthew Smedal is associate musical director. Larry Blank has provided additional orchestrations and Joe Soldo is music coordinator.

To quote another Hamlisch-Sager song (from 1979’s Starting Over), Reprise Musical Theatre’s production of They’re Playing Our Song is “Better Than Ever.” With stellar lead performances by two of musical theater’s finest talents, a book filled with trademark Neil Simon laughs, a hook-filled score, and talent galore offstage and on, this Reprise revival of a rarely produced ‘70s gem well deserves its cheers and standing ovation.

–Steven Stanley
October 9, 2010

Freud Playhouse, 245 Charles E. Young Drive East, UCLA Campus, Los Angeles. Photos: Ed Krieger

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