A very old song

They’re Playing Our Song

She says a pencil in the mouth is worth a thousand lyrics. He’s not buying it.

She says a pencil in the mouth is worth a thousand lyrics. He’s not buying it.

They’re Playing Our Song, 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. $15-$25. New Helvetia Theatre at the Artisan Theatre, 1901 Del Paso Boulevard; (916) 469-9850; www.newhelvetia.org. Through April 2.
Rated 3.0

It’s the critic’s conundrum: You’ve got really good performances, but the play itself? Well, not so much. This time around it’s a musical, New Helvetia Theatre’s production of They’re Playing Our Song. As in its previous productions, New Helvetia spotlights some of the best local musical performers and brings together solid acting, wonderful voices, creative direction and a fun, nostalgic set.

On the other hand, you have the musical itself, the irritating ’70s Neil Simon hit, with lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager and music by Marvin Hamlisch, that’s loosely based on the real-life love story between the hit-making team of Sager and Hamlisch. Neither the relationship nor the musical lasted, and for good reason, at least on the musical side of the equation. They’re Playing Our Song is bloated with bland songs, a predictable plot, unsympathetic characters and outdated material.

So you’re left with applauding the great talent and effort by New Helvetia, while having to ding the final endeavor. And it’s a disappointment, since New Helvetia’s made a name for itself for rediscovering fun but edgy musicals such as Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Tick, Tick … Boom! So why they chose this musical, its third in a row about the making of a musical, to launch the theater’s second anniversary is puzzling.

Most haven’t heard of They’re Playing Our Song because it hasn’t played in years, and it hasn’t played in years because it does not transcend well. It’s the well-trod story of two people, Vernon and Sonia, meeting for the first time, butting heads, fighting their attraction for each other and eventually overcoming all obstacles to end up—spoiler alert—in love. The problem lies in the fact that it’s hard to root for them, especially Sonia, who embodies the ’70s wacky, ditsy Goldie Hawn-ish female character.

It’s the talented Nanci Zoppi who is saddled with portraying Sonia. Zoppi steps up with her usual amazing cabaret vocals and a blast of personality, but can’t make us like Sonia, a woman we want to throttle by the end of the show. Her nemesis/love interest is Vernon, played by Jerry Lee, another talented, charismatic New Helvetia regular who makes his somewhat bland character appealing, but leaves us wondering what the hell he sees in Sonia.

There are six equally talented backup singers that work as a chorus (Rosemary Babich, Rebecca Mason, Hilary Wells, Joseph Boyette, T. Patrick Van and Mike Yee). And as usual, we get a tight, live combo which has become a hallmark of New Helvetia (Graham Sobelman, who’s also the musical director, Erik Daniells, Kenny Manlapig, Alfonso Portela, Kellen Garcia and Verna Brock).

The production, directed by Connor Mickiewicz, is clever as it tries to embrace the musical’s ’70s setting with great campy sets and costumes, complete with spot-on props such as a reel-to-reel tape recorder, dial phone, a typewriter and a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, as well as halter dresses, suede vests and bicentennial striped bell-bottoms.

In the end, it’s an evening of great voices, earnest performances and fun retro-pop props, all held together by a sucky musical. New Helvetia, bring back the fun, funk and edginess that made you so special; we miss you.