Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: Dan Gold, Carmen Risi, and Ensemble. Photo courtesy of Brown Paper Box Co.
By Bec Willett
There’s a conversation in many theatrical circles at the moment about what type of work should be produced: serious activism to change the world or lighthearted humor to help audiences forget their troubles. The work of Neil Simon — who wrote the book for musical THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG – could arguably fit into both. With his propensity for commenting on the human condition through insecure, flawed characters accompanied by whip-sharp one liners, Simon’s work is a combination of laughter and commentary. Unfortunately, Brown Paper Box Co.’s production of Carole Bayer Sager and Marvin Hamlisch Seventies musical THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG did not harness any of these qualities. In fact, this production did just the opposite.
Without specificity of story or creation of driving tension, Dan Spagnuolo’s direction of the romantic entanglement between composer Vernon Gersch and lyricist Sonia Walsk did little to engage us over the 2 hour 30 min run time. As can be expected from Simon, each scene essentially involves a meeting between the two characters in which a conflict occurred and then was resolved, but upped the stakes as it leads into the next scene. However, in this production the stakes remained the same, and indeed sometimes in conflict with the text of the script. At the core of the production is the sexual and romantic tension between Vernon and Sonia, but each time a confessional moment (usually through song) occurs, it is a surprise that these characters feel anything more than platonic annoyance for each other. For the most part, it is evident that the actors – especially Carmen Risi in the lead role of Sonia – are aware of these flaws and work hard to layer in emotional complexity and tension that the director has not allowed for. While this makes Risi’s performance somewhat erratic, she has some beautiful, connected moments, albeit mostly on her own. Her scene partner, Dan Gold as Vernon, struggles to truthfully connect with his character and Risi, especially in the creation of the aforementioned sexual tension that is the raison d’etre of the musical itself.
Costume designer’s Kate Setzer Kamphausen costumes are excellent: in fit, period, and function. The same can not be said for the remaining design. While some interesting structural ideas are present in Ashley Ann Woods’ scenic and props design, the execution is not. From the first moment we were supposed to feel the high status of Vernon through his Grammy awards, yet the props themselves lovingly displayed on a table center stage were clearly cardboard cutouts – the only two dimensional, unrealistic props in the show. While the scenic design tries hard to evoke the era through a yellow and brown motif, the walls are so carelessly painted – sometimes with a stencil, and sometimes without – that it becomes a distraction, constantly pulling us back into the now, serving instead as an unpolished platter for which the performers have to work even harder to engage the audience.
THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG is set squarely in the Seventies, and the patriarchal notions of gender roles, such as the stereotype of the ‘crazy woman who’s impossible to understand’ constantly bubble to the surface. Just as with so many other elements of the design and direction this is unacknowledged and unaddressed, leaving the audience disengaged and wondering why Brown Paper Box Co. has chosen to produce this particular musical in this time and place.