My fondest memories of Marvin Hamlisch are his 1975 Tony Award-winning score for A Chorus Line and his Oscar-winning tearjerker, "The Way We Were." Sadly, these pleasant memories are far outweighed by my most vivid memories of Hamlisch, when he popped up on every talk show on TV, indefatigably hawking his latest Broadway musical, They're Playing Our Song. I can still see him sitting at the keyboard with his relentless energy and wholesome cheer, playing that title song and selling it, selling it, selling it. Compounding the numbing repetitiveness of his guest appearances was the nightmarish repetitiveness of Carole Bayer Sager's lyric.
So while They're Playing Our Song followed in 1979 close on the heels of Hamlisch's greatest successes, I avoided seeing it with the same zeal that I'd avoid Ebola. For a show that tallied over a thousand performances on Broadway, this has been far easier than you might expect — even for a theater critic who has covered nearly every Charlotte theatrical during the past 27 years. The current Song at CPCC is only the second that has been staged under my watch, the first since 1990.
One of the easiest things to forget about any theater piece during a span of 24 years is how small it is. Whether measured against Hamlisch's own Chorus Line or the newborn 101 Dalmatians currently running at ImaginOn, the math is pretty devastating. Compared to the 26 and 18 roles written into those respective shows, the autobiographical Our Song only puts two characters onstage, composer Vernon Gersch and lyricist Sonia Walsk. Two core questions must be settled over the course of the evening: Can this couple become a successful songwriting team, and can they form an intimate relationship?
Hamlisch and Sager beef up the cast by adding a backup trio for each of the two protagonists, ostensibly representing the inner selves Vernon and Sonia keep hidden from each other but really souping up the vocal arrangements and cutting into the vast open spaces surrounding them at Halton Theater. The Bankable One, Neil Simon, pitches in by adding a comical complication in his script, the unshakable shadow of Sonia's needy, clingy ex-boyfriend Leon. Director/choreographer Ron Chisholm also provides filler, placing music director Ellen Robison and a robust instrumental octet upstage, so when Vernon and Sonia have their climactic showdown at the recording studio, it doesn't look like they're sparring in a laboratory clean room.
Lifting this lightweight weakling largely falls upon the able shoulders of Andy Faulkenberry, a proven leading man and triple threat for more than five years. His Vernon certainly draws upon the determined forbearance we saw from him last year as Princeton in Avenue Q, but he draws much more heavily from the hyperactivity we saw from him in his 2009 debut, playing the Cat in the Hat in Seussical. One more facet of Faulkenberry's talent emerges here, for if he isn't actually playing those upright pianos and accompanying himself at the keyboards, he's doing the best imitation I'll ever see.
Vivian Tong, best remembered as Christmas Eve in Avenue Q, has the unenviable task of being even perkier and more irritating than Vernon as the perpetually tardy Sonia with her ever-present baggage. Gushing relentlessly and moving around with whirlwind capriciousness, Tong struggles heroically to make the selfish, neurotic and irresponsible Sonia appealing, but my immunity to peppiness was never quite breached.
Nor do Faulkenberry and Tong have much to work with, musically or emotionally. There are just nine songs in They're Playing, closer to the eight in Dalmatians than the dozen in Chorus Line. That's just one more song than a kiddie musical that runs 37 minutes less than CP's 2:03 but is far more packed with interesting action. Truth is, Joan Cushing probably worked harder on her score than Hamlisch and Sager worked on theirs. Aside from the stultifying repetition of the toy locomotive title song, there are two others — "Workin' It Out" and "Fill in the Words" — that are noteworthy for their scarcity of lyrics.
But you know what? When Faulkenbery and Tong take their turns singing "They're Playing My Song," they make a pretty big splash in this small musical, both of them lively and charming. Now that's some pretty impressive heavy lifting.
It's not an encouraging omen when you look down at your playbill and find that one of the short plays you're about to see bears a title that misquotes a famous line by T.S. Eliot. Sure enough, The End of the World Sampler Platter, presented by Citizens of the Universe, turned out to be a fairly bumpy ride, with Kacy Southerland's "But With a Whimper" about par for the course.
Nine of the 14 quickie plays assembled by COTU for their weekend run at UpStage were on view when I attended the closing night on Sunday, and Southerland's 10-minute play about the distressingly few career paths available to a stressed-out college grad opened the second half of the program. It also typified how broadly the "end of the world" idea could be taken by the neophyte playwrights who participated. "Ides" by Scott gru-Bell took us back to the death of the Confederacy, reminding us of enduring racism and John Wilkes Booth.
"Earth 2.0" by George Bohmfalk took us to a product meeting in God's office as the Almighty conferred with Satan and Jesus on how to relaunch creation after humanity has botched the 1.0. That opening play was one of the evening's highlights, along with Ashley Muse Edwards' "The Juggler," about the eccentric man who keeps the universe in order and the shrink who has drawn the assignment to deal with him. COTU founder James Cartee, who is eccentricity, was stellar in this.
Lastly there was Matt Kenyon's zany "The End of the World — The Play" on some distant planet where a love triangle between a virgin, a hunk and a scientist is punctuated by launching Adam and Eve, the newborns of the hunk's dead wife, into space — Superman style — as their planet perishes. The triangle disintegrated as emphatically as the planet. Threesome!