Arlington — B.J. Cleveland has a positively vaudevillian ability to take over a room—and happily, that room is frequently a theater. And it’s Cleveland’s high-maintenance, prickly performance as the neurotic yet (somehow) charming composer Vernon Gersch in They’re Playing Our Song that gives Theatre Arlington’s good-looking revival the pizzazz it needs to tap dance right past some of the essentially B-grade material of the show.
Cleveland’s rich, casual music-theater voice, paired with the lovely tones of Lori Woods Blondin as Sonia Walsk—the disorganized, slightly ditzy (but emotionally smart) lyricist he’s trying out as a new songwriting partner—makes the songs a pleasure to the ear.
I wanted to love this show. Who wants to argue with 1,000-plus Broadway performances starting back in 1979? Who wants to grumble about an evening spent with Neil Simon’s words, Marvin Hamlisch’s music, and Carole Bayer Sager’s lyrics? Tonys, Grammys, Oscars, Pulitzers—collectively, this trio won them all.
The elements of a solid Neil Simon comedy are here: an (ahem) odd couple with interesting careers meet cute, fight funny, split apart—and guess what happens in the end? Song does have lively moments, but feels a bit dated and forced, like the pilot for a ‘70s-‘80s sit-com that just missed getting a green light from the suits. Hamlisch’s melodies are good, and sometimes more than good—“Fallin’” is lilting, and “They’re Playing Our Song” might make you break out your jazz hands—but Bayer Sager’s generic pop-psychology lyrics don’t serve them well.
Simon gives Vernon and Sonia some funny lines, but trots the same “bits” past us a few times too many. Vernon is a nut about punctuality; Sonia tells time by the sun and moon. He’s a well-off ‘name’; her clothes are hand-me-downs from hit shows, from Cherry Orchard to Pippin. He has exes and analysts and trouble connecting. She has trouble letting go, even of a sad-sack ex-boyfriend named Leon—who calls at every possible worst moment.
But that said, Theatre Arlington’s production puts plenty of talent onstage. Director (and TA executive producer) Steven D. Morris has drawn engaging performances from starring performers Cleveland and Blondin, who develop a quirky chemistry and find ways to keep their slightly “schtick” characters feeling human.
Though They’re Playing Our Song is technically a two-character show, Vernon and Sonia are trailed by their own little Greek choruses, three singer/dancers each, who represent aspects of their inner personalities. All six performers—played by Aaron Cummings, Callie Cunningham, Aaron Hampton, Daniel Hernandez, Nicole Kimbrell and Rema Martinez—have tuneful voices and move with amusing authenticity to Dawn Conley Prejean’s ‘70s choreography. (With luck—or not—some of you will have immediate flashbacks to your disco days.) Especially aww-some is a quartet of sorts, “Fill in the Words,” played on tiny toy pianos by Vernon and his three Voices.
Music director Hans Patrick Grim leads a skilled trio who play from a perch high onstage behind a sheer curtain. (Grim is on keyboards, with Wes Griffen on percussion, and Jaron Porter playing bass guitar.) And sound designer Bill Eickenloff mixes beautifully, keeping both singing and accompaniment clear as a bell.
Set designer Kevin Brown nails the peculiar color choices of the era in wide stripes of brown, avocado, and pumpkin (was there mauve in the mix, too?) that sweep down the walls along twin staircases serving as hideaways for pop-out bedrooms, offices and other scene-changers. (Scenic artist Angie Glover adds misty skyline views of New York.) And designer Bryan Stevenson’s lights are a treat, as they silhouette the musicians above the action or highlight a mood shift in scenes that jump from comedy to romance…and back again.
Costume designer Karen Potter has fun with Sonia’s gently-worn (only 38 times!) theater costumes. She’s made an interesting choice with the Voices, who are dressed in tones of gray that let them blend, a bit ghost-like and here/not-here, into the surroundings of whatever scene they’re in—rather than compete with the more vivid colors of the lead characters’ clothes.
This 40-year-old musical could simply be at an awkward age: old enough to feel creaky, not old enough to be re-born as “vintage cool.” But we’re not here to deal in futures. Right now, if you’re in the mood for some tunes and a pleasantly offbeat rom-com, hard-working Theatre Arlington might just be playing your song.