A tuneful twosome in ‘They’re Playing Our Song’ at Gaithersburg Arts Barn

The playful show captures two songwriters' creative struggles and persevering respect and affection for each other.

If like me you remember songwriter Marvin Hamlisch but have no real recollection of lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, you’re not alone, and it’s further testament that lyricists don’t get the acclaim they deserve. They’re Playing Our Song is a playful look at how Hamlisch and Sager evolved from a successful songwriter partnership into a real-life romantic relationship for several years despite on and off again bumps, near-complete incompatibility, and an ex-boyfriend who stayed in the picture for months.

It all starts off innocently enough. Song lyricist Sonia blusters in to audition for Vernon, who sits in deep concentration at the piano plucking out just the right notes to fit his latest song. He ignores her until he’s ready, thus establishing their dynamics before they’ve uttered a word to each other. Sonia is perpetually late, loud, and verbose (she’s a lyricist so words are golden); he’s quiet, introspective, and organized. From the beginning, sparks fly, and not always the good kind. After a rocky start that almost stops the show before it starts, he plays the song he composed with lyrics she sent him. Their creation, “Falling,” is quiet and breathtaking, and they both pause in reflection. But then she jumps up in alarm and nearly storms out overcome with emotions and insecurity. Vernon is bewildered by her unexpected reaction, they nearly part ways — again — but then find a tenuous way back to try and try again. The show keeps the audience engaged with the on-and-off relationship of a successful New York City songwriting team. They ponder as they separately sing “If He/She Really Knew Me” and are thrilled when they hear their songs played on the radio, thus the musical’s title. The show captures their creative struggles and persevering respect and affection for each other through the turmoil as they create popular songs steeped in emotional awareness.

Alex Greenberg as Sonia and Rob Gorman as Vernon in ‘They’re Playing Our Song.’ Photo by Samantha Fogle.

Casting works well for this odd couple. Rob Gorman as Vernon has a sonorous tenor voice that reaches into a sweet falsetto that aches with tenderness. Gorman can also turn on a dime from bewildered to frustrated to smitten when dealing with his mercurial writing partner. He portrays the character’s glib veneer that can rattle off clever rejoinders with charm and poise. At the same time with poignant expressions and pauses, he hints at the depth and hidden layers of Vernon’s vulnerability that make him seem distant and aloof.

Alex Garcia Greenberg dashes about in a whirlwind as a disheveled Sonia, thoroughly commanding her physical space, totally comfortable making nonsensical demands, and then standing her ground to get what she wants, no matter what. From the beginning, Sonia’s co-dependent relationship with the never-seen Leon would have nipped any other relationship in the bud — he calls in distress in the middle of the night, he’s always in such near collapse that she hustles over to save and salvage. Greenberg’s Sonia carries it all with aplomb. What she lacks in comforting vocal delivery, she makes up with sheer power that belts out in even the upper register. The two actors complement each other beautifully and are a great match.

Direction by Bruce Hirsch keeps the levity flowing. Having additional actors serve as “voices” for the two characters bumps them all into a goofy stratosphere that fits the show’s tone perfectly. When the ensemble players enter wearing the same attire as the main characters, the chuckles can’t help but emerge. Adorable costume design by Stephenie Yee includes silk black and white striped pajamas for Vernon’s group and playfully designed blue patterned robes for Sonia’s. Their inner “voices” explain what the characters are really feeling, suggest options, and in one case shout emphatically “No!” to halt proceeding into treacherous emotional territory. All the players dance jubilantly to a fun night at the club to the song “Working It Out” and recline together as the couple contemplates their next steps. More than a Greek chorus, the ensemble serves as an emotional community under Hirsch’s effective direction.

TOP: Rachel Scheer, Alex Greenberg, and Stephanie Wesley; ABOVE: Rob Gorman, Mark Ludder, Paul Zacolla, and David Hoffman, in ‘They’re Playing Our Song.’ Photos by Samantha Fogle.

Vernon and Sonia couldn’t be more different in terms of temperament, timeliness, and organization, and the design elements reflect the contrasts. The multipurpose set design by Hirsch and Jennifer Georgia is versatile in its maneuverability and function with a change required each scene. The changes were rapid and well organized, but the need for a different setting for every scene unfortunately got wearying. The extensive props required a village of handlers with Kay Holcombe and assistance set dressing by Jennifer Walker. Vernon’s famous awards are displayed prominently — a Grammy, an Oscar (that Sonia fumbles with irreverently), and a national music award. Sonia’s place as expected is as cluttered and disheveled as she is and keeps the set handlers busy.

While the show was first performed in the 1980s, I’m convinced that like lyricists, it hasn’t gotten its due. It feels ageless in its quest to show the value of friendship and getting out of your comfort zone. This production of They’re Playing Our Song is well-designed and does justice to the stellar pedigree of the book by Neil Simon, music by Marvin Hamlisch, and lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager. It’s a great catch.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

They’re Playing Our Song plays through April 28, 2024 (Friday and Saturday at 8 PM; Sunday at 2 PM), presented by The Gaithersburg Arts Barn in partnership with the Kentlands Community Players performing at the Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road Gaithersburg, MD. For tickets ($24; $20, students 15–21; $15 your (14 and under), buy them at the door or purchase them online. Online ticket sales end two hours prior to the performance. Tickets may also be purchased in person at the Arts Barn box office or by contacting the Arts Barn (301-258-6394).

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

They’re Playing Our Song
Book by Neil Simon, Music by Marvin Hamlisch, Lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager

Bob Gorman as Vernon
Alex Garcia Greenberg as Soni

Sonia’s Voices—Rachel Scheer, Rachel Schlaff, Stephanie Wesley
Vernon’s Voices—David Hofmann, Mark Ludder, Paul Zoccola

Orchestra—Alex Diaz (Keyboard), Lynn Kaplan, Joshua Shakarji

Director/Sound Design—Bruce Hirsch
Assistant Director—Evelyn Renshaw
Musical Director—Melodia Rinaldi
Choreographer—Stephanie Wesley
Set Design—Bruce Hirsch and Jennifer Georgia
Props—Kay Holcombe
Set Dressing & Props Assistant—Jennifer Walker
Costume Designer—Stephenie Yee
Lighting Design—James Robertson
Stage Manager—Jerry Callistein


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