Of Music and Lyrics Are Relationships Made…

Many years ago… back in 1978, to be precise… I saw the world premier of “They’re Playing Our Song” at the Ahmanson Theatre, with Robert Klein and Lucie Arnaz as the leads. It is a show I’ve always enjoyed; the cast albums is always a joy to listen to. Today, I saw it again in the Valley Musical Theatre production at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.

For those unfamiliar with They’re Playing Our Song, it is a musical with book by Neil “Doc” Simon, music by Marvin Hamlisch, and lyrics by Carol Bayer Sager. The story based on the real-life relationship of Hamlisch and Sager, through the characters Vernon Gersch (a composer, in need of a new lyricist) and Sonia Walsk (a lyricist, coming off a bad breakup). They are attracted to each other, but are clearly opposites in character and temprament. Of course, given the nature of musicals, they come together and fall apart and come together again in humorous Neil Simon ways. Each of the two characters has a group of backup singers that represent the internal voices (although all they do is sing). That’s basically it: the humorous love story of Vernon and Sonia.

VMT (myspace) did an excellent job with this piece. Vernon Gersch was played by Scott Waara*, who was great… and far superior to the original Vernon (for one thing… he could sing!). I found him to be very warm and compelling as an actor, and he hit the comedy notes quite well. Sonia Walsk was played by Vicki Lewis*. Vicki did quite well on playing the quirky Sonia, although I slightly preferred the original, Lucie Arnaz, for the songs–Vicki had a few points where her phrasing or breaths were off. She did have a strong singing voice, though, and other than the occasional off-breath, was a pleasure to listen to. Vernon’s chorus consisted of Chris Ciccarelli, Jay A. Donnell, and Geoffrey Kidwell. Sonia’s chorus consisted of Seana Harris, Shanon Mari Mills, and Anna Perilo. Both choruses did what they were supposed to do–sing, provide the occasional funny look, and move scenery when appropriate–but they did not have distinct character.
[* indicates Actors Equity Members]

The show had a scenic design by Brett J. Banakis and Lighting by John E.D. Bass, and both were effective for the small stage at the El Portal. Costumes were by Thomas G. Marquez, sound by Philip G. Allen, and casing by Michael Donovan Casting. The music was directed and conducted by John Randall, and the production was directed and choreographed by Dan Mojica. Stage management was by Lindsay Martens with assistance from Brianne Levine. All did a great job.

This was the first production of the first formal season of the Valley Musical Theatre under the Executive Direction of Ronn Goswick. We had fun talking with Ronn after the show, and congratulating him on how great the show was. This is a new musical theatre group in Los Angeles; they deserve your support. Of course, I must also acknowledge their wonderful webmistress, our own shutterbug93.

There was one interesting aspect to this production. Ronn had arranged for a group from the DCA High School Show Choir to attend the show. He indicated that he likes to introduce youth to the arts, and has a regular program of having local schools attend Wednesday morning performances. Anyway, the DCA group seemed like a reasonable bunch of kids, and were enjoying the show… but at intermission, they all got up and left. I’m guessing the issue was the content, for there was (heaven forfend) an unmarried couple sleeping together. I feel sad for these kids having such a sheltered life–even Jesus was out in the real world, even if he didn’t approve of it all.

They’re Playing Our Song continues at Valley Musical Theatre until next Sunday, March 11th. The rest of their season looks good: the return of Beehive (April 20-May 6); Baby (Sep 21-Oct 7); and Little Shop of Horrors (Nov 30-Dec 16). I’d explore season tickets, but the narrow window of shows makes Goldstar more practical for scheduling purposes.

As for us, were in the March Madness that is our theatre calendar. Next up is a concert: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy at CSUN on Sat, Mar 10th @ 8pm. Following that, we’re back to theatre: “Songs for a New World” at the ELATE Lincoln Stegman Theatre on Sat Mar 17th @ 8pm; “The Beatles Slept Here” (a Moorpark Melodrama from the High Street Theatre Foundation) at the Secret Garden Restaurant (tickets) on Sun Mar 18th at 1:30pm; “The Last 5 Years” at REP East on Sun Mar 25th at 2pm; “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on Sat Mar 31st at 2pm; and “Cuttin Up’” at the Pasadena Playhouse on Sat Apr 7th at 8pm. I’ll be looking on Goldstar for tickets for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” through Broadway/LA (tickets go on sale 3/18)… and through HotTix, tickets for “Jersey Boys” at the TaperAhmanson (tickets on sale 3/12). As I said… a busy, busy, theatre spring.


On The Highway… Route 57 to be Precise

This afternoon, after a morning dim sum run to Empress Pavillion in Chinatown with ixixlix, the Karate Kid, and ellipticcurve, we made our way to the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood to see the San Fernando Valley Playhouse production of Pump Boys and Dinettes. For those unfamiliar with the show, PB&D is a review-style musical written by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel, and Jim Wann. You might recognize these folks from shows such as Oil City Symphony, Radio Gals, The People Vs. Mona, and Jim’s Garage. The play is about the Highway 57 Service Station, staffed by L.M. (Martin Alexander Fox), Jackson (Casey Gensler), Jim (Jimmy Bishop), and Eddie (Joe Link), and the Double Cupp Diner, staffed by Rhetta (Catherine Battocletti) and Prudie Cupp (Tara Tucker). The story (such as it is) is about…. OK, there really is no story; the play is an opportunity for the actors to perform and interact with the audience. That they do: there is a raffle for a car deodorizer (you get your choice of the christmas tree, the tweety bird, or the pinup girl), the cast is out in audience, and the front row gets to dance. I’m surprised (and thankful) they didn’t do the hokey-pokey during intermission.

The music has a country-western feel, as one would expect from a gas station near Smyrna, GA. All of the actors were talented musicians, although some of the instruments (in particular, the piano) could have been mic-ed a bit better. They were mostly good singers; I don’t know if the weaknesses were due to poor mic-ing or weak voices. Some of the songs needed to be belted, and they weren’t. I also found the tempo on some of the faster songs to be slower than I expected, but that could have been due to being used to a recording.

As for the music: this show has some of my favorite music to listen to for toe-tapping, so it was nice to hear the songs in context (such as it is). I noticed some changes in songs; in particular, “Woolworth” was changed to “Walmart”. Times change, I guess. Most of the actors were imports (i.e., without long local resumes) from outside California; many are associated with Mainstage Artists Management out of St. Louis, and there seemed to be a lot of association with Minneapolis MN.

This evidently is the first formal year (2004 was their opening season) for the San Fernando Valley Playhouse (although I seem to recall a series last year). They must do a bunch of group sales; there was a large number of seniors in the audience. At the beginning of the show the executive director (James Blackman III) welcomed folks, asked for their input, noted he didn’t like their last show, and made it clear he was “out”. As he pointed out, you don’t see Gordon Davidson doing that. Will we be back to the SFVP? Depends on the production. The seating and view lines were great, so it is likely.

[Crossposted to cahwyguy and socal_theatre]