Perhaps it’s because I wasn’t alive in the era portrayed in “They’re Playing Our Song,” the musical now showing at Hanover Tavern, but I can’t help comparing it to the classic 1970s film “Annie Hall.”
It was “Annie Hall” that solidified Woody Allen’s rom-com formula, humorously following a neurotic nebbish who falls in love with a beautiful, free-spirited woman in New York. Of similar set-up (and similarly autobiographical) is “They’re Playing Our Song,” based on the real-life relationship between composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager. Renamed Vernon and Sonia, the musical follows the ups and downs of their romantic and professional relationship, with music and lyrics by Hamlisch and Sager themselves.
The story is as light and frivolous as Hamlisch’s disco-era score. Vernon is a gifted composer but a worrier and Sonia is a bit of a hippie with a tendency to show up to meetings more than a day late. The two quickly fall for each other while writing music, their relationship punctuated by persistent phone calls from Sonia’s former lover Leon, sneaking into a beach house, and breaking up during a recording session.
Portraying Vernon and Sonia in Virginia Rep’s production are Landon Nagel and Aly Wepplo, thankfully rounding out the show’s cheesier moments with charming performances. Nagel dutifully nails each of the one-liners that Neil Simon’s book has laid out, and Wepplo’s ditzy performance glues together the plot’s incongruous elements. But the whole ordeal is of a wacky, lighthearted comedy style that fell out of vogue long ago. Additionally disappointing are Hamlisch’s schmaltzy score and Sager’s uninspired lyrics, which seem to mine the worst of the era’s disco and easy listening.
Backing the romantic couple is an ensemble of clones, dressed to look either like Sonia or Vernon in each scene. The effect is cute, emphasizing that it’s a story about two people while allowing for company numbers.
While Jan Guarino’s direction keeps the action moving steadily along, some of the choreography gets a bit stale, particularly with the ensemble spinning into and out of every single scene change. Compared to the magic she normally works on the tavern stage (I once saw her make an entire pickup truck disappear), Terrie Powers’ simple set with a curtain as a city skyline seems a bit barebones.
For some, “They’re Playing Our Song’s” references to Geritol and Walter Mondale surely will serve as a humorous stroll down memory lane, but for many it will seem an irritating exercise in copying someone else’s formula. S
Virginia Rep’s “They’re Playing Our Song” plays through Jan. 4 at Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, Hanover. Visit va-rep.org or call 282-2620.