Chicago Theatre Review
Fill In the Words
They’re Playing Our Song – Brown Paper Box Company
Amidst two busy professional lives and careers, overflowing with hundreds of hit songs and prestigious awards, lyricist Carol Bayer Sager and composer Marvin Hamlisch found each other. They also wrote the score for this 1979 Broadway hit musical, loosely based on their own personal and professional relationship. With a book by prolific comedy playwright Neil Simon, the musical ran on Broadway for more than three years and was nominated for four Tony Awards. For Hamlisch, it was the followup to his Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, “A Chorus Line;” for Sager, this creative collaboration followed her work with such talented recording artists as Melissa Manchester, Barry Manilow and Peter Allen.
The musical reveals the rocky relationship between two fictional New Yorkers in the music business. At the height of their individual careers, we meet Vernon, an Oscar and Tony Award-winning composer, modeled closely after Hamlisch, and Sonia, a successful musical artist, who answers Vernon’s ad for a lyricist to collaborate on his latest commercial hit. Both characters have their quirks and imperfections, like all of us. They’re not heroes, nor are they larger than life. They’re just real-life, decent people who ultimately are looking for the same things in life.
Both characters are hauling around trunks of emotional baggage. Sonia’s mired in an on-again, off-again relationship with a troubled fella named Leon. Vernon just broke up with Natalie Klein, a difficult-to-forget woman whose initials are embroidered on all of his towels. Trying to move on emotionally and into this new, professional relationship, Vernon and Sonia attempt to forget their pasts and give in to their romantic attraction. But, as they say, it’s complicated. Vernon’s obsession with neatness and order and Sonia’s inability to get anywhere on time weigh heavily. Both characters are deeply neurotic and they’re often their own worst enemies. Although we never actually see Leon in person, from Sonia’s description he becomes so vivid, he might as well be a member of the cast.
Both Carmen Risi and Dan Gold exhibit topnotch vocal talent and create likable, kinetic characterizations as Sonia and Vernon. Ms. Risi, who’s been seen on stages, both around Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin, creates a frustrating character who’s appropriately apprehensive and easily excitable. The actress handles her songs with honest conviction and musical expertise. Carmen hits all the right notes with her ballads, “If He Really Knew Me” and “I Still Believe in Love.” Sometimes, however, the actress is difficult to understand, speaking so fast that she drops the end of her words and lines. She also has a bit of difficulty with her lower notes of her songs, which were originally written especially for alto Lucie Arnaz.
Mr. Gold, who’s exceptional in any role he undertakes, is strong in his characterization and sounds great vocally. These songs fit nicely into his range, as if written especially for him. He’s at his best with “Fallin’” and “Fill in the Words,” and both Risi and Gold simply rock the joint with their toe-tapping title song. Sometimes, unfortunately, Gold lets his enthusiasm get the best of him. In this intimate space, it’s especially important for an actor to avoid “acting,” but instead keeping it consistent and real. Dan Gold frequently pushes a little too hard, instead of just allowing the character and the comedy to flow naturally. The result is a Vernon who at times overpowers his Sonia, instead of playing equally with her on common ground.
There are six additional characters who do appear and comprise the ensemble of what is essentially a two-person musical. The writing team has cleverly invented additional facets of Vernon and Sonia’s personalities, who are referred to in the program as the Voices. This chorus provides some delightful harmony and visual variety, often silently reacting to Sonia and Vernon or suddenly breaking into choreographed dance moves. This talented ensemble includes Ariana Cappuccitti and John Marshall Jr., both talented dancers. It also features Mike Danovich, Elissa Newcorn, Bradley Halverson and Deanalis Resto. Together the six form a wonderfully backup group for the two leads.
Daniel Spagnuolo, who has worked both on and off stage all over Chicagoland, directs and choreographs this joyful, biographical musical. Making great use of the pocket-size playing area, he utilizes every square inch of Ashley Ann Woods’ kitschy, versatile scenic design. Spagnuolo’s ably assisted by musical director Ilana Atkins who’s guided her cast toward mastery of these soft rock and disco-infused tunes. And Kate Setzer Kamphausen has nicely costumed her cast in stylish 70’s fashions, without appearing stereotypical.
It’s great to see and hear this wonderful musical again, almost 40 years after it first opened in the Big Apple. Since then, the show has seen productions all over the world and it’s become a staple among educational, community and regional theatres. An actor’s director/choreographer, Dan Spagnuolo has created a very entertaining production of a charming show that’s loosely based upon the real-life relationship between composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Carol Bayer Sager. It’s a story about what it really takes for a satisfying collaboration, both professionally and personally. The production not only beguiles, it showcases the talents of eight of Chicago’s triple threats and sends audiences back out into the summer night smiling and humming.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 23-August 30 by Brown Paper Box Co. at Rivendell Theatre, 5775 N. Ridge Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-334-7728 or by going to www.BrownPaperBox.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.