What: Neil Simon's “They're Playing Our Song”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays through Aug. 31 (“Plaza Suite” shows at 7:30 p.m. Fridays through Aug. 30)
Where: The Durango Arts Center, 802 E. Second St., Durango, Colo.
Cost: $24 for general admission; $22 for center members; $22 for seniors and students
More info: Call 970-259-2606 or visit www.durangoarts.org
DURANGO — The Durango Arts Center is presenting "A Neil Simon Summer" through the end of August, and is highlighting two different works by the American playwright. Thursdays and Saturdays, the center is showing the musical, "They're Playing Our Song," and on Fridays, the comedy "Plaza Suite."
"They're Playing Our Song" is a combination play/musical, with much of Simon's script set to music by award-winning American composer and conductor Marvin Hamlisch, and lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager.
The play opens with Vernon Gersch (played by Ben Mattson), sitting at his piano in his Manhattan apartment working out a tune. Vernon is an award-winning, wise-cracking pop music composer, who is somewhat aloof and set in his ways. Until the disorganized and quirky Sonia Walsk (played by Bailey Sande), whirls into his isolated life, Vernon's greatest joy is finding self-validation when he chances to hear one of his musical creations playing on the radio or on a restaurant sound system.
Sonia is a talented, idealistic lyricist who has recently achieved some minor success for her lyric writing. Awe-struck by the more famous Vernon, Sonia is honored to be asked to work with him in composing a new song. As the two develop their music-writing relationship, the inevitable romantic relationship also evolves. It is complicated by the soft-hearted Sonia's inability to break off contact with her former boyfriend, who constantly calls her seeking help with his emotional problems.
Typical of many Neil Simon plays, the divergent aspects of the characters' personalities lead to complications in the romantic relationship they're trying to nurture, and the rest of the play centers on whether or not they'll be able to build a bridge sufficient to hold the relationship together.
In addition to the energetic musical numbers, choreography, and colorful and creative set design and costuming, what makes this production of "They're Playing our Song" particularly engaging and fun to watch is the regular appearance of four singing and dancing "muses" that represent different voices inside Sonia's and Vernon's heads. The muses appear throughout the production and act as harmonious backup singers for the pair, while continually trying to edge the conflicted couple back together.
Director Theresa Carson and her production team made the wise decision to increase the amount of stage time for these muses.
"We added them into the production much more than was called for in the script," says Carson. "The muses' goal is to get Vernon and Sonia together, so we wanted to create more opportunities for them to have a bigger role in moving the story along."
Carson said this is the center's first year to have an actual theater season, and says she chose to present Neil Simon for this first season because of how well known his work is.
"I wanted to find a playwright that people would recognize, and wanted to identify shows they would know. Neil Simon fit that definition," she said. "He is one of our greatest American playwrights, and he's just so funny."
Aztec resident Mattson, who teaches singing, guitar and acting to Koogler Middle School students for his "day job," said that despite having performed in numerous theatrical productions, he was initially intimidated by the script for "They're Playing Our Song."
"I've never before done something that's so funny," he said. "It's been a very challenging role, but it's also been a lot of fun putting it all together."
In addition to impressive vocal performances, Mattson and Sande do a good job of making the chemistry between their characters believable. The combination of the show's contrasting characters, Simon's tongue-in-cheek humor and the Broadway-style song and dance numbers make for an upbeat, entertaining evening, and Hamlisch's score promises to leave audience members with at least one catchy tune they won't be able to stop humming during the drive home.