Think of Dreamgirls or Jersey Boys on a shoestring budget and you will get an idea of the loveliness of I’m playing your song. It’s a new work, co-written by its director and performer, embracing the period in which arguably some of the greatest popular music in the world was made. It has a cast of two – three, including the piano – but a reach as rich and tight and melodic as the big budget shows. It embraces the life and music of Marvin Hamlisch – he of songs such as The Way We Were, The Spy Who Loved Me and the theme song from The Sting, to name but a few. But in touching all these points, the work is big-hearted and soundly made: it’s backed by a strong team who clearly are deeply in love with the material itself, and what you get, in the audience, is a big musical in a small framework. And it’s a gem of a success.
Indeed, Alan Swerdlow, director and co-writer of the work has done it again. I’m playing your song is beautifully constructed around America’s glitterati in film and music of the time; it doesn’t pretend to be chronological and it doesn’t shy from the overtly Jewish elements in Hamlisch’s life. Rather it is punctuated with chunks and anecdotes, engaging everything from the overbearing presence of Hamlisch’s European refugee mother, to the unapologetic romance describing his relationship with Terre Blair, who he married in 1989.
But in terms of the songs being yours and mine, so is the story: these classics of western popular music are so universal in their meaning and catchiness that the story is not only that of Hamlisch, but it’s yours and mine too. The theme about falling in love. The one about following your dreams. About finding the ‘elbows’ to make yourself a place in the world. And yet, even though it is loaded with all these schmaltzy clichés, it vies from silly maudlin. Granted, the humour is very American and not often sophisticated, and there’s a weird anachronism with a cell phone in the early 1980s, but forgiving those elements, this is a magnificent piece of work, which pays breathtaking and fun homage to the great Barbra Streisand.
It is supported with an ingenious set which is at once a screen for projections and a domestic space, the home for the piano, and the place where Hamlisch’s mother makes tuna sandwiches, with celery. There are some quirks and light bulb moments in the set which will make you shrill with delight, but overall, there’s a sense of smooth comfort with these performers, in the context of the set, with one another, that’s so delightful that it spills over into the audience from the work’s opening bars until its finale.
You may just have been wowed by Jonathan Roxmouth in the eponymous role in Sweeney Todd at this theatre; you won’t be disappointed with him as Marvin Hamlisch. This multi-talented performer exercises other muscles here, which succeed admirably in giving the musical giant flesh and blood and wonderful humanity.
But in many respects and at several unequivocal highlights, Sharon Spiegel-Wagner steals the show. Playing every female lead, in clever costumes and wigs, she truly comes into her own in this work. Audiences have watched her mature onstage over the last decade or so. But here, she takes on her characters and performs her music with a sense of authority and sheer passion that holds the whole audience in the palm of her hands.
I’m playing your song is one of those shows that touches many buttons in the heart and sensibility of an audience who was alive in the 1970s and 1980s. Although it doesn’t feature the kind of show-stopper musical moments as you might remember from Jersey Boys, its piano work is masterful and witty and its interchange of time frames, characters and mood, is crisp and engaging. In short, see it.
- I’m playing your song: The Marvin Hamlisch Story is written by Jonathan Roxmouth and Alan Swerdlow, based on idea by Pieter Toerien. It is directed by Alan Swerdlow, features music by Marvin Hamlisch, and lyrics by Bryan Adams, Carol Bayer Sager, Alan and Marilyn Berman, Craig Carnelia, Ed Kleban, RJ Lange, Howard Liebling and Barbra Streisand. It is designed by Denis Hutchinson (lighting and set), Mark Malherbe (sound), Bryan Schimmel (musical supervision) and Colin Muir (wigs). It is performed by Jonathan Roxmouth and Sharon Spiegel-Wager, at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Fourways, until January 10. Visit www.montecasinotheatre.co.za or call 011 511-1988