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THEATER REVIEW

The casting is off-key in catchy 'Song'

February 27, 2007|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

"Boy meets girl," a narrative hook dating back to Genesis, is all-important to "They're Playing Our Song" at the El Portal Theatre. Neil Simon, Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager's 1979 Tony-nominated musical about a composer, a lyricist and their rocky romantic collaboration opens Valley Musical Theatre's second season.

A crowd-pleaser since its 1978 premiere at the Ahmanson with Robert Klein and Lucie Arnaz, "They're Playing Our Song" is faintly roman a clef -- Hamlisch and Sager were an item at the time. Mostly, though, this saga of much-acclaimed tunesmith Vernon Gersch (Scott Waara) and madcap wordmonger Sonia Walsk (Vicki Lewis) is a standard two-hander dressed up in librettist Simon's quips.

Take the running gag about Sonia's wardrobe choices (courtesy here of costumer Thomas G. Marquez) "This is from 'The Cherry Orchard,' " Sonia tells Vernon.

"I don't know that store," he replies. Later, Vernon informs his tape recorder, "She is wearing another of those dresses that seem to cry out, 'Enter Olga Petrovka from stage right.' "

A similar sitcom bent to the narrative dates "They're Playing Our Song." Fortunately, the songs retain their catchy appeal. Sager's lyrics are hardly theatrical, but they sit well on Hamlisch's enjoyable disco-era melodies, which have Top 40 bounce, particularly "Fallin'," "If He Really Knew Me" and the toe-tapping title song.

Director-choreographer Dan Mojica keeps things brisk, and musical director John Randall gets his combo chugging. The designs are mainly functional -- Brett J. Banakis' unit set of skyline and platforms outstripped by John E.D. Bass' splendid lighting -- but that's not where the discord lies.

Lewis, a marvelous comic, zeroes in on Sonia's quirks and emotions, and sells the songs with house-rattling force. However, Waara's Vernon, always a welcome presence and fine singer, is miscast, his Midwestern amiability as removed from the enervated Klein template as possible.

The chemistry upon which the show depends thus implodes from the get-go, which the oddly cast inner-voices chorus inadvertently highlights. Sonia's women (Seana Harris, Shanon Mari Mills and Anna Perilo) seem ready for their Gap commercial. Vernon's men (Chris Ciccarelli, Jay A. Donnell and Geoffrey Kidwell) spin the ordinary-Joe dial. The device comes off as aimlessly decorative, much like "They're Playing Our Song," which passes the time but isn't exactly timeless.

*

'They're Playing Our Song'

Where: El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Call for exceptions

Ends: March 11

Price: $35 to $50

Contact: (866) 811-4111, www.elportaltheatre.com

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

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