Hans Bachman may be the hardest-working director in local show business. His last show, an elaborate production of the tap dance and music extravaganza "42nd Street" finished up in Annandale just two weekends ago, and his new musical, "They're Playing Our Song," was already onstage in Arlington last weekend. Fortunately, "They're Playing Our Song," by Dominion Stage, is a fairly stripped-down effort, sort of a boutique musical, and Bachman's expert touch with a talented cast creates a generally engaging production.
The story is from Neil Simon, though one of his lesser efforts, to be sure. However, the major voice of this 1970s relic seems to be that of Marvin Hamlisch, who composed the music. Even though Carol Bayer-Sager wrote the lyrics, Hamlisch's old-time sensibility infuses the entire production. Hamlisch seems to have been born middle-aged and in love with Tin Pan Alley. The 10 songs are generally peppy, almost vaudeville-sounding throwaways. The title song, "They're Playing Our Song," in which the characters marvel that they are hearing music they wrote being performed, eerily captures Hamlisch's puppylike need for audience approval.
It is obvious that neither Simon nor Hamlisch wanted to spend much time on this one. Let's see, only 10 songs, with five reprises to pad out the show -- somebody wanted to get away to the Hamptons for a long weekend. Simon's plot is so thin it's practically translucent. Boy and girl meet and immediately fall in love. That's pretty much it, except for some inside show-biz jokes. Simon's sharp wit is missing in action here, as exemplified by the following snippet of what passes for banter. Male lead: "Talking to you is like sending out the laundry. You never know what's coming back." What?
This is an intimate musical, featuring just two leads and a chorus of six egos: three guys for the male lead and three gals for the female lead, who pop out from behind the furniture to provide backup singing and light choreography as a sort of intellectual Greek chorus.
Vernon Gersch is a successful Manhattan songwriter. Sonia Walsk is an emotionally crippled and unconventional (i.e., annoying) lyricist who arrives to collaborate with the great man. Sonia is supposed to be a newcomer and penniless, yet she has apparently had quite a few hit songs. Again, what? Never mind. No noticeable sparks fly, and they fall in love in a casual -- no, make that offhanded -- way. The only impediment to their eternal happiness is that Sonia is still hung up on her needy ex-boyfriend.
Fortunately, Bachman has two gifted performers who rise well above the material and do a wonderful job with the songs, particularly Kristen Jepperson as Sonia. The woman is so talented it's hard to believe she is found here on a community theater stage after substantial professional work with national touring companies. Jepperson's heartfelt touch makes several ballads more evocative than they deserve to be, but she also belts out the up-tempo material with enough sparkle to light up Broadway.
As Vernon, Dan Herrel struggles with some of the limp dialogue but his light baritone voice is clear and strong for his big numbers, and he is almost a match for Jepperson, who, by the way, towers over him. Bachman might have used the disparity in their stature for some sight gags, but didn't.
Bachman apparently likes to do everything himself, including choreography and set design. He manages a startling variety of settings with a fairly small number of background pieces, mixing and matching; the overall effect is pleasing to the eye. The 11-piece orchestra is sprightly and usually does justice to the score, but conductor Elisa Rosman needs to rehearse the trumpets before this weekend's shows, please.
"They're Playing Our Song," performed by Dominion Stage, runs through Nov. 9 at Theatre One of the Gunston Arts Center, 2700 Lang St., Arlington. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 8 p.m. Nov. 7. For tickets, call 703-683-0502.