They're Playing Our Song
Stephanie J. Block is irresistible opposite Jason Alexander in Reprise's staging of the Neil Simon-Marvin Hamlisch-Carole Bayer Sager autobiographical musical.
As some might recall, the musical by Marvin Hamlisch, Carole Bayer Sager and playwright Neil Simon ran for over 1000 performances on Broadway due, in some degree, to Simon's belly laughs about New York neuroses and artists in love. Unfortunately, the work now proves often as rocky as the lead characters' up-and-down relationship, in large part because Jason Alexander's Vernon Gersch has no chemistry with the luminous Stephanie J. Block as fellow tunesmith Sonya Walsk.
The show is a thinly veiled reenactment of songwriters Hamlisch and Bayer Sager's real-life romance. And while the pair wrote several hits as a team -- most notably "Nobody Does It Better" -- none of those songs nor this show's score is as memorable as the work they did separately, such as Hamlisch's score for A Chorus Line or Sager's "Don't Cry Out Loud."
Meanwhile, Simon emphasizes the couple's differences -- a favorite theme in his work -- and reminds us that love may not be enough to keep these two together. It's a jovial enough script, with many zingers, but doesn't have the weight to require a 2 ½-hour running time.
Director Lonny Price keeps the jokes moving, but he shouldn't have been so reverential to the overlong script. Simon repeats himself, hammering home ideas that were funny once but drag on, and the show would have been much more enjoyable with a loss of 20 minutes. Moreover, Price's opening slideshow to accompany the overture seems like a badly conceived Oscar Clip montage.
Price does have an ace in his hand in his leading lady. The character of Sonia is a flibbertigibbet who speaks her mind without thinking of consequences, wears hand-me down costumes from Community Theater, and hashes out her song lyrics with three muses. Still, her heart is bigger than Manhattan and she truly cares for her fragile ex-boyfriend Leon (a ghost of a character who is often mentioned but never seen). As embodied by Block, Sonia is simply irresistible. Her humanity shines through and makes you not only love Sonia, but the bland songs she sometimes sings. Her Act One finale "Just For Tonight" has never sounded better, while her "If You Remember Me" is heartwrenching.
The character of Vernon is more precarious because he's less involving; too often, he appears to just be another Woody Allen clone of the nebbishy but talented variety. In trying to compensate, Alexander (also the company's artistic director) hams up his numbers, sometimes selling to the back row like he was Al Jolson. However, his voice is not at its strongest right now and he jumps at higher notes instead of hitting them. Worst of all, Alexander can't seem to find the pathos in his unhappy character. He just seems to be exhaustingly exasperated all the time.
The muses who sing back up to both Vernon and Sonia are well performed by Daniel Guzman, Jamey Hood, Christa Jackson, Dennis Kyle, Sylvia MacCalla, and Christopher Zenner, but they nevertheless feel superfluous. They don't often act as a Greek Chorus, commenting on the feelings of the leads, as the creators probably thought they would.
The orchestra under Bruce Kiesling's direction is a delight as always, spry and upbeat, finding the best moments of Hamlisch's melodies. Costumer Kate Bergh has a great sense of whimsy tackling Simon's conceit of Sonia's second-hand closet. (When Sonia achieves wealth, the wardrobes transition into smart and fashionable, giving a visual concept to her character's maturity.) Meanwhile, set designer John Iacovelli is equally playful using a period turntable and speakers as his foundation. They set a pop-music mood while also stressing the play's natural buoyancy, even when it doesn't come through elsewhere.