As veteran director Norb Joerder readily concedes, The Wick Theatre was looking for a small musical to open its season, concerned about ticket sales before the snow bird audience arrives. In that sense, the company chose well with 1979’s They’re Playing Our Song, a two-character, on-and-off romantic comedy based on the quirky – and doomed – relationship between composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager.
True, the show calls for a daunting number of sets, two trios of backup singer/alter egos and an onstage sports car, but it still feels like a small musical in size and consequence. To further boost interest in the show, The Wick brought in ringer Andrea McArdle, who first belted her way onto Broadway 40 years ago in the title role of (Little Orphan) Annie.
Here she plays ditzy Sonia Walsk, an up-and-coming lyricist who gets an opportunity to collaborate with established but neurotic composer Vernon Gersh (James Clow, Cornelius in The Wick’s Hello, Dolly!), and is soon romantically entangled with him.
The pop score is bouncy and catchy, though the songs feel interchangeable and rarely have much dramatic weight. Coming as it did just after Hamlisch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Chorus Line, the score seems minor and takes a back seat to Neil Simon’s joke-laden book. Nothing gets Simon’s comic juices going like a squabbling odd couple and Sonia and Vernon fight a lot.
Chronologically speaking, McArdle is really too old to play Sonia, but she looks far younger than she is and references to her character’s age have been adjusted upward. She still has that powerful, throaty voice and all is well when she hauls off and sings. On the other hand, she is about a quart low on the character’s requisite flakiness, though Simon’s punch lines probably work no matter who delivers them.
Audiences probably will come to see McArdle, but will likely leave impressed by Clow. His Vernon is full of quirks and he strikes the right notes of comic ire as Sonia constantly disrupts his well-ordered world. His songs – written originally for non-singer Robert Klein – have a narrow musical range, but Clow invests them with a winning mellow sound.
One of They’re Playing Our Song’s better ideas is the occasional injection of a backup trio for each of the characters, popping up from behind furniture or drapes to act as Greek chorus confidants to Sonia and Vernon.
A frequent welcome element of Wick productions are the mood and location setting projections and motion graphics of Josieu T. Jean. They are particularly effective in a scene where Sonia and Vernon drive out to Long Island, in a scene-stealing 1951 MG roadster.
Less frequent, but even more welcome, is the live accompaniment provided by musical director Michael Ursua. His eight-piece orchestra brings the score vibrantly to life and gets its own onstage cameo appearances.
THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG, The Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Through Sunday, Nov. 6. $75-$80. Call: 561-995-2333.