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The Same Old Song

When aspiring lyricist Sonia (Connie SaLoutos) meets successful composer Vernon (Dan Kelley) in They're Playing Our Song, she hesitates while searching for the right words to describe his work: "Your music is, well, universally embraced.... I don't want to use the word commercial." Adjectives like commercial have plagued author Neil Simon for most of his career. Although one of America's most well-known and prolific playwrights, Simon didn't garner critical recognition until the 1980s, when he wrote the autobiographical trilogy Brighton Beach Memoirs (1982), Biloxi Blues (1984), and Broadway Bound (1986).

For most of his career, he had been accused of milking tears and force-feeding jokes without delivering much substance. They're Playing Our Song, which debuted on Broadway at the Imperial Theater in 1979, falls into this category. Despite the intimate nature of the piece, it takes no risks. It has the Simon trademark of being emotionally present without being challenging or threatening. While the Broward Stage Door's performance is energetic and at times quite funny, the script relies on a string of jokes that are humorous but elicit little more than a chuckle from the audience.

Allegedly based on the relationship between Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager, who wrote the music and lyrics, respectively, They're Playing Our Song is the story of the stormy relationship between a successful composer and a virtually unknown songwriter. Besides Sonia and Vernon, the play has one additional central character: Sonia's ex-boyfriend Leon, whom we never see but who is ever-present as the butt of many jokes. Leon is also the major obstacle to Vernon's relationship with Sonia, because she is always running off to rescue him.

A trio of alter egos accompanies Vernon and Sonia. The egos appear early on in the number "Workin' It Out." Dressed identically, they are supposed to represent Sonia and Vernon's personalities but serve mainly as background singers and stagehands. The women -- Lisa Hookalo, Stacy Schwartz, and Vicki White -- are competent singers but lack charisma. The men -- Randy Charleville, Andrew Fiacco, and Shawn R. Kilgore -- harmonize well and are particularly funny in a hospital scene in which they play miniature pianos. But ultimately the concept of the egos is more interesting then the reality; its presence neither improves nor harms the performance.

Simon almost always ends up with an "odd couple" in his plays, and They're Playing Our Song is no exception. Sonia is wacky, adventurous, and idealistic. Vernon is conservative, cynical, and neurotic. Sonia's words spill forth like a dam bursting. Vernon's are calculated and biting like a well-aimed arrow from an archer's bow. While some of Vernon's lines are clever ("I tried to take a Valium, but I couldn't get my teeth unclenched," "Talking to you is like sending out laundry. You never know what you're going to get back") the relationship between Sonia and Vernon never goes below the surface. It's as funny and unsatisfying as the antagonistic repartee of other Simon works such as The Goodbye Girl.

It's been said that Hamlisch and Sager set out to write a hit that would bridge Broadway and Billboard. They did not succeed. Wistful, Karen Carpenter-esque ballads dominate the musical score, and a few upbeat soft-rock refrains are thrown in for good measure. In the first few numbers, SaLoutos doesn't hit the high notes with much resonance, but her rendition of "I Still Believe in Love" is heartfelt and sonorous, making this tune the best musical number in the show.

Although SaLoutos sings competently, what she really brings to the role is her Marsha Mason quirkiness and Lucille Ball antics. At one point Sonia receives an alarming phone call from Leon, who is in the midst of a crisis, so she rushes into the night to help him. While she's rattling off a litany of reasons for her speedy departure, she pulls her nightgown between her legs, ties a man's belt around her waist, and throws on a red cape. The moment is reminiscent of the slapstick of Laurel and Hardy dressing in a baggage car.

Kelley watches her with an incredulous, slack-jawed stare and finally comments: "You look like you're going to the forest to visit your grandmother." Moreover Kelley extends the humor from the moment to the scene, skillfully providing a cohesiveness to Simon's one-liners. Perhaps the best thing about the play is Kelley and SaLoutos's impeccable timing. Though there is a lack of chemistry between the two, they exhibit professionalism and high energy. And they're funny. In the final analysis, the lead actors make a mediocre play entertaining.

After seven years of staging musical reviews and Jewish comedy before Broward and Palm Beach retirees, Dan Kelley is finally getting a chance to direct something different. This month Kelley, former artistic director of the Broward Stage Door Theatre, will direct Falsettoland, a gay musical comedy that depicts one of the most untraditional bar mitzvahs of the 20th Century. Written by William Finn and James Lapine, the Tony Award-winning play received critical acclaim when it debuted in 1991. Kelley says that some of the play's lyrics best sum up its content: "It's about growing up, getting older, living on your lover's shoulder, learning love is not a crime."

Traditional roles are reversed, erased, and rewritten in the story of Jason, a 12-year-old who is preparing for the Jewish ceremony. Jason's parents are divorced. His father, Marvin, leaves wife Trina for a man named Wizzer. Trina marries Marvin's ex-psychiatrist. Throw in the "self-proclaimed lesbians from next door" and you have a unique celebration of young manhood. The juxtaposition of such a traditional occasion with an untraditional environment is clever, funny, and moving. Explains Kelley: "I always wanted to produce Falsettoland because I was transfixed by the music when I first heard the CD." Falsettoland received a Drama Desk Award for its music and lyrics. Kelley adds that it is not only the content that makes this play unique: "It's a musical that moves me profoundly and in unpredictable ways," he says. "You laugh when you don't want to laugh. You cry during the funny parts."

Falsettoland will open June 23 at the Broward Stage Door's newly acquired 26th Street Theater (formerly the Wilton Playhouse) in Wilton Manors. The owners of the Stage Door spent $150,000 to renovate the space, which opened in January of this year. While the 26th Street Theater has not been slated as a venue for more experimental productions, it's refreshing to see the company has something new to sing about.

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Mia Leonin

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