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Robyn O'Neill adds spark to the same old tune in "They're Playing Our Song."

Simple Simon


Ah, how I wish I could be the leading male character in a Neil Simon play. I would be extremely talented but emotionally distant, and my deep, dark neuroses would be convincingly masked by my glib personality. And best of all, beautiful and quirky women would admire me and ultimately fall in love with me. Of course, then I would be forced to break up with them because, well, this is theater and we need dramatic tension, for goodness sake. But after only a modicum of soul-searching, I would win back my love and all my needs would be met.

So it goes for composer Vernon Gersch (Steve Perigard) in "They're Playing Our Song," the Theatre IV musical now playing at the Barksdale Theatre. Gersch is based on real-life composer Marvin Hamlisch, He is only looking for a new lyricist when he meets Sonia Walsk, a fuzzy-headed but warm-hearted songwriter played with radiant charm by Robyn O'Neill. Despite his initial annoyance at her eccentricities, Vernon falls for Sonia, only to reject her when things get hairy. Will he come to his senses and try to get her back? You know the answer as well as I do.

I would have more sympathy for Vernon if I hadn't seen the exact same character in Neil Simon's "Jake's Women," which played at Chamberlayne Actors Theatre a couple of months back. It's not that Perigard doesn't do a fine job; he has just the right nebbishy charisma for the role. It's just that, plotwise, this musical is a completely by-the-numbers affair and poor Vernon is the one connecting the dots. Even the songs, with music by Hamlisch and lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, are mostly forgettable, 1970s-style ditties.

So, even with these downsides, how does this show end up being a nicely uplifting delight just the same? Two things: Theatre IV's top-notch production values and the intrinsically engaging O'Neill. For this first effort under the cooperative agreement between Theatre IV and the cash-strapped Barksdale, director Jan Guarino has reconfigured the Barksdale's performance space into a three-quarter thrust stage. This allows scenic designer Jedd deLucia to go all-out with a beautiful Manhattan skyline backdrop. Lost in its clouds is a peppy little band assembled by musical director Stephen Rudlin, anchored by standout performers in pianist Amy Hruska and trumpeteer Forrest Johnson.

They provide the accompaniment for O'Neill's expressive voice, which soars on the one unmistakable winner of the evening, "Just For Tonight." The veteran actress brings Sonia to full-bodied life with her forthright portrayal. Though we know Sonia is a bit of a ditz, O'Neill never compromises her character's integrity. In later scenes, the character's increasing confidence seems a logical continuation of her growth. O'Neill is the vital heart that keeps this production alive whenever it threatens to peter out.

Director Guarino adds many flourishes to the production, making clever use of a dancing chorus of Vernon's and Sonia's alter egos, and concocting a clever toy piano chorus near the show's end. With the help of O'Neill and a skillful design team, she has overcome the liabilities Neil Simon wrote into "They're Playing Our Song" to deliver an enjoyable slice of summertime fun.

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