They're Playing Our Song, Menier Chocolate Factory, London
Fisher's move from mountains to Manhattan is a problem
Tuesday 05 August 2008
Wise-cracking neurosis is about as alien as devout Buddhism to Maria, the fresh-faced novice nun in The Sound of Music. It's the very air she breathes to Sonia Walsk, the kooky New York Jewish lyricist who is the heroine of the 1979 musical They're Playing Our Song. In an effort to prove that she's not a one-trick pony, Connie Fisher – the viewers' choice on the original casting-by-TV talent show – has now graduated from the first role to the second. Fiona Laird's production at the Menier Chocolate Factory suggests that this was not such a brilliant idea. Picture Julie Andrews attempting to impersonate Barbra Streisand – well, it's by no means as bad as that but let's just say it's on that kind of spectrum.
Apart from providing a platform for Fisher in her bid to break the Maria mould, it's hard to figure out why the Menier – which has such a distinguished record with musicals – has chosen to revive this miserably untalented tuner. Essentially a two-hander, it's a semi-autobiographical account – by composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager – of the bumpy relationship between (you got it) a repressed composer and his new, offbeat female lyricist.
Just in case the atmosphere of showbiz narcissism becomes too stifling, each character has a backing group of three identically clad alter-egos. The resulting dance routines would make Pan's People blush but this device at least multiplies at the Menier the opportunities for sniggering at the hilarious wigs (Fisher looks as if her face has been pushed through one of those seaside cut-outs) and the hideous fashions from the Decade Taste Forgot. The production's intention is witty pastiche but it's a misguided aim since it sabotages any hope that the love story will matter to us.
Alistair McGowan is as miscast as Fisher in the part of the composer, Vernon Gersch, who only feels safe when barricaded behind his piano. A strapping, healthy-looking figure, he looks as if he'd be happier wife-walloping in Kiss Me, Kate than kvetching about therapy and fame ("The man hasn't been born who's as neurotic as I am"). The two performers can't be accused of not waggling their hands a lot in that aggressively self-deprecating Noo Yawk manner but the dogged semaphore and the dodgy accents seem to get in the way of their establishing much sense of sexual chemistry.
Fisher's clear and true soprano is largely wasted on Hamlisch's forgettable score, which ranges from flavourless soft-pop to flaccid sub-disco. The book is by Neil Simon at his most mechanical. As you listen to the non-stop barrage not-so-cracking wisecracks, it's the other meaning of "gag" to which the mind fondly strays. Vernon has heard that there are Russian peasants who are free from neurosis – but not one of them ever has a song in the Top 40. Sonia dresses kookily in hand-me-down costumes from old shows like Pippin. If the characters were still struggling for recognition, they might be just about tolerable.
So what next in this line? Lee Mead from Joseph as Sweeney Todd? Danny Bayne and Susan McFadden from Grease in The King and I? I somehow feel that Fisher, transposed from the mountains to Manhattan, is not going to set a trend.
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