What’s on stage: They’re Playing His Songs: The Music of Marvin Hamlisch
Conceived and Directed by David Zippel, Choreography by Lorin Lattaro, Musical Direction by Christopher Marlowe; Scenic & Lighting Design, Christopher S. Chambers; Costume Consultant, William Ivey Long; Sound Design, James McCartney; Stage Manager, Ginger M. James; Advance Stage Manager, Dan Zittel; Video Production by Trick Dog Films.
CAST: Jason Graae, Christiane Noll, Carol Woods, Karen Ziemba.
Musicians: Musical Director/Piano, Christopher Marlowe; Guitar,Steve Marchen; Bass, Rod McCaulley; Percussion, Gary Spellissey.
The Cape Playhouse in Dennis Village is offering a bouquet of smiles for a summer’s night with the world premiere of David Zippel’s tribute show, They’re Playing His Songs: The Music of Marvin Hamlisch, honoring both the man and his music. This bittersweet labor of love features the virtuoso piano accompaniment of Musical Director Christopher Marlowe, the talents of four singer/actors who all worked with Hamlisch during their careers, and entertaining video clips of the composer commenting on a range of subjects.
Marvin Hamlisch (1944–2012) was one of the most successful composers of the twentieth century and one of only fourteen people who can claim the title of EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) Award-winner. Since his untimely death last August, there have been countless tributes to him around the country, perhaps around the world. For those of us who have loved his work on stage and screen, They’re Playing His Songs is a wonderful walk down memory lane, sharply focused on the music and lyrics without any fancy trappings.
Rest assured that the program includes his most beloved and well-known musical numbers, including “Nobody Does It Better” (The Spy Who Loved Me), “Through the Eyes of Love” (Ice Castles), and “The Way We Were” from the movie of the same name. My all-time favorite musical, the groundbreaking A Chorus Line, is well-represented with no fewer than five selections, showcasing “One” as the finale, complete with gold top hats. However, part of the joy is discovering some of Hamlisch’s lesser-known (or less remembered) compositions, such as “If You Remember Me” (The Champ), “Let Go” (Frankie & Johnny), a pair of duets from The Goodbye Girl, and “Ordinary Miracles,” written with lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman for the 1994 HBO Special: Barbra Streisand: The Concert.
The star-studded foursome, all with Broadway credits, consists of Tony winner Karen Ziemba, Tony nominee Christiane Noll, Drama Desk nominee Jason Graae, and Olivier Award nominee Carol Woods. As should be the case with summer theater, they look like they’re having a ball together and put across every song with ease and high caliber professional chops. After Marlowe plays an overture, the full company opens with “They’re Playing His Songs,” which riffs on the title tune from They’re Playing Our Song by altering the lyrics to set up the show we are about to see. Each of the singers gets a couple of solo turns and Jason pairs with Carol (“Let Go”) and Karen (“Elliot Garfield Grant” and “Paula”). I don’t think it is a coincidence that Graae channels Martin Short in the two numbers from The Goodbye Girl (in which Short played the role that featured Richard Dreyfuss in the movie) and his antics and voice are most charming.
The women do a lovely, poignant rendition of “At the Ballet” and Ziemba, who made her Broadway debut in A Chorus Line, sells the message in “The Music and The Mirror” without actually dancing and without a mirror. Noll acts her songs (“Nothing” and “Through the Eyes of Love”) while impressing with her sweet, silky voice, and Woods is smooth and effortless, but finishes with a sustained belt. All four of the company infuse every song with the right amount of joie de vivre and nostalgia, love, or lament. Most of all, they put their hearts into it when they live and breathe the message of the penultimate song, “What I Did For Love.”
Marlowe and his three fellow musicians — Steve Marchen on guitar, Rod McCaulley on bass, and Gary Spellissey on percussion — are seated upstage before a simple black backdrop with a center screen for projections. Scenic & Lighting Designer Christopher S. Chambers changes the hue occasionally and hangs multi-colored streamers for the pop hit “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows,” but the set reflects the concert nature of the show. Costume Consultant William Ivey Long has the women in dresses individually fashioned for them, with each making one or two quick changes, and Graae wears a black suit with an open-necked blue shirt until donning a tuxedo for the finale. The performers use microphones alternately handheld or on stands, and Sound Designer James McCartney perfectly balances the vocals and instruments.
Zippel, a multi-award-winner (Tony, Oscar, Grammy) who wrote the lyrics to Hamlisch’s music for The Goodbye Girl, conceived of They’re Playing His Songs in 2013 and produced it as a one-night concert at The McCallum Theater in Palm Desert, California, in January. It had to be a huge challenge to narrow the song list from more than forty motion picture scores and half a dozen musicals, but there isn’t a bad one in the bunch of the eighteen selections. An especially nice touch is Hamlisch featured in a film clip accompanying himself singing “If You Really Knew Me” (They’re Playing Our Song). As director, Zippel’s blocking is conservative. What movement there is gets done well, but there’s not a whole lot of what you’d call dancing.
Read More reviews: Reviews: Cape Playhouse show fond tribute to Hamlisch / An Ode to One Singular Sensation
They’re Playing His Songs: The Music of Marvin Hamlisch should sell tickets on the title alone, but the production at the Cape Playhouse has so much more going for it. Zippel’s concept, Marlowe’s outstanding arrangements and accompaniment, and four topnotch Broadway artists add up to a winning trifecta. We continue to mourn the loss of this wonderful composer, but his songs will always give us memories of the way we were.
WATCH: Scene from film: Ice Castles (With Music Theme: Through The Eyes of Love)