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Review Round-up: Connie Fisher\'s Song in Tune?

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The first major London revival of Neil Simon’s musical They\'re Playing Our Song, starring Alistair McGowan and Connie Fisher, opened last night (4 August 2008, previews from 25 July) at the Menier Chocolate Factory, where it continues until 28 September (See News, 23 Jun 2008). This is Fisher’s first full stage role since leaving The Sound of Music in February, and critics were eager to see if she could move beyond Maria Von Trapp.

The semi-autobiographical story is based on the often turbulent relationship between composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, who provide the music and lyrics for the piece. Vernon Gersch, a neurotic and successful composer with a host of awards, is paired up with the lovably eccentric Sonia Walsk, a young lyricist who’s a hopeless time-keeper and dresses in cast-off theatre costumes. The unlikely pairing seems destined to falter off key, but as their working relationship grows, so do their feelings for each other.

They\'re Playing Our Song is directed by Fiona Laird and designed by Matthew Wright. After shooting to fame on the first BBC musical casting programme How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? two years ago, Connie Fisher subsequently won best newcomer prizes at both the Whatsonstage.com and Critics’ Circle Awards for The Sound of Music. Over the past two years, TV impressionist Alistair McGowan has also accumulated a number of musical credits including Merry Wives – The Musical, The Mikado, the West End transfer of the Menier revival of Little Shop of Horrors, for which he was Olivier-nominated, and, most recently, Cabaret.

They\'re Playing Our Song had its Broadway premiere in 1979, starring Robert Klein and Luci Arnaz. The West End premiere a year later starred Tom Conti and Gemma Craven. The score includes “Workin’ It Out”, “If He Really Knew Me”, “Just for Tonight”, “I Still Believe in Love” and the title song.

Overnight critics found little common ground with regards to They\'re Playing Our Song, some hailing the “charming production” and others disappointed by this revival of a “miserably untalented tuner”. As for the performances, most agreed that Connie Fisher has successfully shed “the spectre of Maria” with the role, though some detected a lack of “sexual chemistry” between her and Alistair McGowan and noted that both actors fought against bad hairdos that contribute to a feeling that the piece has dated badly.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “Fiona Laird’s slick and cheesy revival of the 1979 musical about the once real-life working relationship of composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager is the best-ever bad hair day for musical theatre buffs. Alistair McGowan as the wise-cracking Vernon Gersch is obviously mindful that Tom Conti played the role in the London premiere (opposite Gemma Craven) at the Shaftesbury) and has secured a lush mop of Conti coiffure. Connie Fisher as neurotic, hyper-active Sonia Walsk looks first like Maureen Lipman after losing a serious argument with a hairdryer … Sam Spencer-Lane’s choreography is bang on the money for such a low-level concept, with a lot of John Travolta-style posing, while Matthew Wright’s design cleverly conjures the world of showbiz schlock with a revolving vinyl record floor, a baby grand piano with ornamental Oscar and a Manhattan skyline. It’s all highly enjoyable, though not exactly in the spirit of either Neil Simon’s witty book, or indeed the songs themselves. McGowan gets better with each musical he does, and Fisher proves that her Maria in The Sound of Music was no flash in the pan.”
    • Serena Davies in the Daily Telegraph – “There’s no doubt the Menier Chocolate Factory’s latest musical offering is a period piece, but it may prove just the right choice to help its star Connie Fisher shake off a bit of her own recent history … The geeky sweetness Fisher brought to her West End part segues smoothly into the kooky wackiness of her mildly irritating role here. She’s outdone in the subtlety stakes by the excellent McGowan but somehow that doesn’t matter. She is buoyed by a hilarious book by The Odd Couple’s Neil Simon and the effective conceit of the show that Vernon and Sonia have their own alter-egos. Three each, indeed. These provide a charming chorus decked out in flares and bad hairdos in Fiona Laird’s inspired Seventies pastiche of a production … The bum note, ironically, is struck by the efforts of Hamlisch and Sager, both award winners in their time. Their songs are corny schmaltz peppered with naff rhymes … But with the disarming charm of both McGowan and Fisher, who cares about a little musical mediocrity in this sweet show.”
    • Paul Taylor in the Independent – “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 … It\'s hard to figure out why the Menier … has chosen to revive this miserably untalented tuner … 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 … 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 of not-so-cracking wisecracks, it\'s the other meaning of ‘gag’ to which the mind fondly strays.”
    • Liz Hoggard in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “We haven\'t seen a revival for almost 30 years. So how does it stand up today? Sadly, not that well. Now a nostalgia piece - despite the fact that the Abigail\'s Party decor and costumes are bang-on fashion this season - it rarely gets below the surface. Frankly, When Harry Met Sally has better, sharper lines. Yes Fisher, who sings her heart out, successfully kills the spectre of Maria, but you can\'t help noticing there\'s little real chemistry between her and McGowan, who looks old enough to be her father. Indeed, there\'s an occasional whiff of the sixth-form play about this production. Theatrical devices, such as the three-person Greek choruses who accompany both Vernon and Sonia voicing their innermost thoughts, no longer look radical. And the production\'s expressionist set - action takes place on a revolving vinyl single, with a backdrop of sheet music - often feels clunky. It\'s commendable that Fisher wants to branch out … But inevitably she\'s hampered by her lack of life experience - there\'s no way she can convince as a world-weary, thirty-something New York Jewish broad.”
    • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (four stars) – “Ordinary life has resumed for Connie Fisher. After the glory of The Sound of Music, she has already suffered the indignity of a cancelled concert and tour. Now she treads the humble boards of the 170-seat Menier Chocolate Factory, a theatrical broom cupboard compared with the London Palladium. Not that starring opposite Alistair McGowan in this revival of Neil Simon’s witty musical romance … should be seen as a comedown. Instead, Fiona Laird’s production is an opportunity for Fisher to show what she can do in an intimate space, away from all that public expectation … She passes the test with flying colours … She is a wonderfully complex blend of infuriating chaos and touching vulnerability, with an infectious energy that makes her compelling to watch from start to finish. She is also in fine voice … Her co-star is equally impressive … Gravel-voiced, and not blessed with leading-man looks, McGowan is nevertheless entirely convincing as the more established half of the creative duo … A wise-cracking piece which deals entirely with a bickering, on/off romance between two smart creative types may be too navel-gazing for some tastes. But it’s a charming production in which two likeable performers demonstrate a genuine chemistry, proving that musical theatre doesn’t have to be blockbusting to excite.”

      - by Kate Jackson

      ** Our Whatsonstage.com Outing to THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG - including a FREE programme & EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A with Connie Fisher & Alistair McGowan,
      all for £22.50 – has now SOLD OUT!! - click here to join the waiting list! **

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