Sunday, January 6, 2019

The late Neil Simon's celebration of music and love opens Beef & Boards 2019 season

Master composer and burgeoning lyricist start forging a bond.
The old knock on the late Neil Simon is that his plays were brief jokes (some of them actual one-liners) strung together and displayed across a thin plot by shallow, undeveloped characters.  Maybe that was because the jokes were pretty good, on the whole, and the sprightliness of the dialogue seemed to dwarf everything else.

Without getting into an examination of Simon canon here, more than a few of his plays refute the dismissal.
"They're Playing Our Song" falls somewhere in between. Some substance is supplied by the songs of Carol Bayer Sager and Marvin Hamlisch, whose real-life relationship formed the basis of Simon's show. The rest comes from exploring the friction inevitable when two disparate personalities attempt to achieve professional and personal accord at the same time.

In its opening weekend at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, "They're Playing Our Song" exhibited its entertainment value and a shelf life perhaps somewhat longer than might be expected.  There are several dated references and, not surprisingly for a play from the last century, a huge difference from today in the kind of communication possible when the people concerned are not in the same room; connectivity will never be the same. The show's old-fashioned vibe fortunately doesn't obscure its 2019 appeal.

A couple of other things, however, were jarring Saturday night. To get the nitpicking out of the way, B&B's backdrop to a first-scene set in successful tunesmith Vernon's well-appointed apartment is the Brooklyn Bridge. But when aspiring lyricist Sonia first shows up there late for a lesson that she hopes will lead to collaboration, she compliments him by admiring the flat's "nice view of the Park." I'm sure that expression to New Yorkers always means Central Park, which is a few crucial miles away. The other point was the unlikelihood of  Juilliard graduate Vernon's pronouncing Leonard Bernstein as "Leonard Bern-steen." Across the nation since the 1950s, many Americans, not just music cognoscenti, have known that the "stein" in the famous composer-conductor's name rhymes with "fine."
Vernon uneasily plays Sonia's therapist so she can unload a little.

On to more important matters: David Schmittou and Sarah Hund in the leading roles looked and sounded completely dialed in to Vernon and Sonia. Under the direction of B&B veteran Jeff Stockberger, they were extraordinarily busy and representative of the company's emphasis on vigorous portrayals full of movement and gesture complementing the characters' vocal pizazz. To the dazzling virtuosity of Simon's rapidfire dialogue, Schmittou and Hund added animated physical prowess, including "talking with their hands" (as many of us do to some degree) that consistently made sense. Along a spectrum ranging from actors flailing and not really knowing how to be expressive with their arms and hands, Schmittou and Hund were masters of the other end.  It must be an exhausting show when done this way, but it worked.

The Stockberger brand as an actor showed through most in his directing style when Vernon, seeking to make an important point to Sonia, walks rapidly into a bed, then across it on his knees before righting himself on the other side. Both characters are in therapy, so their outsize fervor establishes norms of its own. Madcap eccentricity is a Stockberger signature.

Along the way there's also lots of singing. One of the first-act songs found Hund having to negotiate effortfully her lower range; otherwise, her voice fit the material — especially in the first-act peak of "Just for Tonight" and, most vitally, in the second-act anthem to resilience in matters of the heart, "I Still Believe in Love." Schmittou's voice was more of the serviceable type that songwriters are known for, and that suited the role of Vernon perfectly. The comical zest of his composing "Fill in the Words" using a toy piano while hospitalized with a broken leg was thoroughly charming.
Vernon and the boys keep the creative juices flowing in "Fill in the Words."

That song featured the best use of the play's shadow personas, "the  boys" Vernon consults to spur his creativity. They were played by Doug King and Peter Scharbrough, whose blend as singers was uneven but offset by their well-coordinated movement. Sonia's "girls," her alter-ego counterparts consulted as she forges lyrics, were enacted by Lauren Morgan and AnnaLee Traeger, a duo whose singing and dancing were more on an even keel.

I can't deny that "They're Playing Our Song" seemed to wear thin at length. I thought I detected some flagging of energy in Schmittou and Hund in the late scene after the convalescent tunesmith is back in New York and finding an excuse to keep the romance alive with Sonia's ready assistance. But maybe I was just tired of Sonia and Vernon and especially of Sonia's ex-boyfriend Leon, whom we never see but who clings like lovelorn Velcro to the plot.

One can admire the durability of artistic partnerships that manage also to cultivate mutual love without finding Simon's sparkling dialogue and Sager and Hamlisch's buoyant songs quite enough to sustain interest in the partners that's as strong as theirs in each other. But in this engaging production, the spell is still pretty powerful.

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