The perfect size for a boutique musical production, They’re Playing Our Song launches new independent musical theatre troupe Company Eleven with great flair.
The intimate new space of MC Showroom, Prahran allows the audience to be up close and personal with the quirky pair of lead characters of They’re Playing Our Song. The show is performed acoustically, a feat achieved all too rarely in recent times, with music and performance levels neatly balanced for easy listening.
Although the production clearly has a relatively modest budget, the staging is very well realised and the performances are of a standard that far belies the two-day season.
Based on the collaboration of real life composers Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager, They’re Playing Our Song can be described as a play with songs. In stark contrast to the usual production numbers that accompany the rise of the curtain, the beginning of each act features a significant dialogue scene. The duo’s songs are threaded throughout a delectably comical book by master playwright Neil Simon, which contains laugh out loud one-liners aplenty.
The rather romantic story is basically a love triangle with an unseen third wheel. Successful, uptight composer Vernon Gersch meets daffy, freewheeling lyricist Sonia Walsk, and the mismatched pair attempts to correct their compatibility so as to balance their work/life (or is that life/work) relationship. The path to success is a rocky one, with any momentum being quickly derailed by lingering Leon, Sonia’s needy ex-boyfriend.
Young director Sam Hooper shows a very confident hand, establishing ideal performance levels for the small space. Sonia’s mania could easily be overwhelming in a close theatre, so Hooper dials this back to more of an inner mania, achieving performances from both lead players that really draw the audience towards the characters. The characterful comedy is played oh so straight, making Simon’s work all the funnier.
Hooper’s choreography for Vernon and Sonia is as funny as anything seen on Kath and Kim.
Designer Tessa Robinson has achieved an authentic late 1970s vibe, and the scenic elements are easily rearranged to creatively represent the various settings. Sonia’s penchant for theatrical costumes is beautifully achieved, providing many a visual gag.
In a very clever use of space, musical director Chris Nolan sits directly opposite Vernon’s keyboard, allowing Vernon’s tickling of the ivories to be achieved directly in sync with the live music. Toshi Clinch, on bass, and Luke Singleton, drums, complete the tiny band, and the talented trio shows great restraint in playing at volumes that allow the unamplified vocals to be easily heard.
Lighting, by Celine Khong, appears quite simple but is deceptively well designed, creating mood, establishing time, drawing the eye to various positions on the wide stage and creating interesting effects, such as the passing flicker of street lights on the difficult drive to Long Island.
Glenn Hill is splendidly cast as Vernon, his natural curls forced down into an errant marcel wave in a way that an uptight man would surely style his hair. In line with the restrained performing style of Hooper’s direction, Hill conveys Vernon’s ticks and quirks as a tightly bound package that seems set to explode at any moment. Likewise, Hill sings with a natural, unforced tone that fits both the character and the space perfectly.
Alana Tranter is a delight as Sonia, bringing out the lovable side of the potentially irritating character with seemingly effortless grace. Tranter keeps Sonia’s insecurities bubbling away just below the surface without ever letting the pot boil over. Tranter’s singing is lovely, particularly in het act two lament “I Still Believe In Love.”
It is, of course, usually just taken for granted that actors know their parts, but given the very short season and the very large roles, it is worth mentioning just how completely secure both Hill and Tranter are in every regard of their performances.
The pinnacle of the two lead performances, and indeed of Hooper’s direction, comes in the final scene, when the journey achieved by Vernon and Sonia can be seen in their changed body language. It’s all there in Simon’s book, but it is the physical performances that really tell the story of how far these two songwriters and lovers have come.
The two-hander is slightly expanded by the inclusion of an inner voice for the two lead characters, a concept explained by Sonia as part of her song writing process. Baylie Carson, Belle Power, Sam Ward, and James Watkinson give polished, confident performances in these rather thankless roles. Special mention goes to Ward and Watkinson for the gorgeous harmonies created with Hill in act two ballad “Fill In The Words.”
They’re Playing Our Song plays at MC Showroom, Melbourne until 7 October 2017.
Photos: Tennille Mansell