At first blush, seeing City Repertory Theater stage a Neil Simon play might seem akin to shock rocker Marilyn Manson – remember him? – perform such softie hits as “The Way We Were” or Broadway’s “A Chorus Line,” both by old-school composer Marvin Hamlisch.
After all, during its current season alone, the Palm Coast-based City Rep has presented a rock musical about teen sex and suicide (“Spring Awakening”) and a #MeToo-prescient drama about date rape (“Actually”), with Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” and Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana,” a psycho-drama that twists sex and religious faith, on the horizon this spring.
So, when City Rep director John Sbordone says the troupe’s production of “They’re Playing Our Song,” the musical Simon co-created with, yes, that Hamlisch guy and his songwriting partner Carol Bayer Sager, is the “lightness of our season,” it’s akin to pointing out that pope guy is a Catholic. The 1978 musical – or, as Sbordone prefers it, the play with music – is a semi-biographical account of the real-life romance and songwriting partnership of Hamlisch and Sager.
But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to City Rep staging “They’re Playing Our Song” January 10-19 at its black box venue in City Marketplace — Sbordone lost his cast, which was the very reason the two-person musical was scheduled in the first place.
Film director Alfred Hitchcock was notorious for having proclaimed, “I deny that I have ever said actors are cattle. What I said was: ‘Actors should be treated like cattle.’ ”
Sbordone, a burly man with a gray ponytail who looks like he should be playing Shakespeare’s Falstaff, is anything but Hitchcockian towards his performers — so much so that Sbordone frequently tailors City Rep’s repertory toward the talent and desires of local thespians.
So, when local attorney and stage veteran Lloyd Bowers, who has an undergraduate theater degree from the University of Virginia, suggested City Rep should stage “They’re Playing Our Song,” Sbordone naturally said yes. Pairing Bowers once again with Julia Davidson Truilo, a classically trained mezzo soprano whose area stage credits go back decades to Seaside Music Theater in Daytona Beach, was a natural. The duo previously starred together in City Rep’s production of the two-person musical “I Do! I Do!” in 2014.
“This was Lloyd’s pet project to begin with — he really wanted to do this,” Sbordone says. “But Lloyd developed severe back problems and after extreme treatment could not come around. At that point it was very, very difficult to find an older gentleman to play opposite Julia, and Julia suggested we go to a younger cast.”
Enter City Rep veterans – that is, young veterans — Beau Wade, who stepped in to play Vernon (the Hamlisch doppelganger), and Angela Young, who was an understudy but assumed the role of Sonia (the Sager character) a mere three weeks ago.
Hamlisch, who is the only person besides composer Richard Rodgers to win Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony and Pulitzer awards, once said, “The one thing I liked about ‘They’re Playing Our Song’ is that we were just trying to do a really fun, nice evening with no pretentiousness.”
Sbordone notes the play is “not biographical in the true sense. It was a collaborative effort, and Julia maintains and I think she’s right – it’s closer to the relationship of Neil Simon and Marsha Mason (the actress and real-life wife of the playwright) that he portrayed in his play ‘Chapter Two.’ ”
And, Sbordone adds, “This is more of a play with music than a musical. One of the key things in casting this is you have to have actors. If you have two singers who can’t handle the 13 scenes in the play, then it’s going to fall flat on its face. So, it starts with actors who can sing.”
Wade says the character of Vernon “is an anxious, neurotic man, but he’s coming into his own as far as his songwriting goes. He’s won a Grammy and Academy Award at this point in the story, but he’s having some failure is in his love life. The year before he had been engaged to three different women.” (Wade confesses that he doesn’t know if that plot-thickener is autobiographical.)
Vernon actually loved only one of those three women, Wade says of his character, “but she hated his music. He says that he doesn’t care if you like him or don’t like him, as long as you like his music.”
The Sonia character, Young says, “is very intelligent, very flighty, a weird dresser. She’s starting over. She’s finally trying to get out on her own and be more independent. She’s been working with different composers and trying to get herself out there in her career. But she has this relationship with a third character that we never meet, Leon, who is involved in every scene. He is constantly invading the relationship of her and Vernon, working or personal or otherwise. And she just can’t let go of him. She’s on a big rollercoaster the whole show.”
Without disputing Hamlisch or Sbordone’s “lightness” assessment, Young notes that Simon’s writing elevates the play beyond fluff. She compares it to the shows she grew up watching on Nick at Nite, the overnight programming block on the Nickelodeon cable TV channel: “Not the current Nick at Nite but the old Nick at Nite,” she says. “That kind of sharp comedy with language that’s not common language, that’s a little bit above. It’s just really fun and this play has been a challenge.”
Neither is the play anachronistic, Young says: “There’s a lot to relate to now. There’s a part where Vernon gets real snarky and calls Sonia ‘lady.’ And she says, ‘Where do you get off calling me lady – that’s a chauvinistic remark. It would be as denigrating as if I called you “boy.” How about writing some songs, boy?’ It’s that kind of humor that’s timeless. It’s still relevant to today.”
“This show was easy to say ‘Yes’ to,” notes Wade, who played Frank-N-Furter in City Rep’s “The Rocky Horror Show” and directed the troupe’s “Actually.” “The music is very fun, very upbeat, boppy. Fun to sing, fun to dance to, fun to listen to. Reading the story, it’s Neil Simon, so it’s very, very funny. It’s a two-character show, and that means all the jokes are coming from one or the other. So, you are either the set-up or the punchline the entire show. Of course, I would want to do something like that (laughs).”
“The music is really, really fun,” says Young, who played Columbia in “Rocky Horror” and Biondello in City Rep’s production of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” “It’s super catchy, it gets in your head and you can’t get it out of your head (laughs). It’s been driving my husband crazy.”
–Rick de Yampert for FlaglerLive
“They’re Playing Our Song,” directed by John Sbordone, at City Repertory Theatre, at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 10, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 11, 7:30 p.m. Jan 17-18, and 3 p.m. Jan. 12 and 19. Both Jan. 11 performances are sold out. Performances are at CRT’s venue in City Market Place, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, Suite B207, Palm Coast. Tickets are $30 for adults, $15 for students. For more information or tickets, call the CRT box office at 386-585-9415 or easily book online here.