By BRUCE DENNILL
I’m Playing Your Song: The Marvin Hamlisch Story / Directed by Alan Swerdlow / Pieter Torien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg
There’s a regular conversation about South African theatre that focuses on the importance of telling “South African stories”. And that’s an important idea to consider – of course it is – but very often results in the efforts of talented writers, producers and performers concerned with other themes being under-valued.
In the case of I’m Playing Your Song, director Alan Swerdlow and star Jonathan Roxmouth, working off an idea by producer Pieter Torien, have written an American story, and one that the Americans have not only managed to overlook, but could not as well even if they decided to get on board. That composer and songwriter Marvin Hamlisch has not been celebrated regularly and on different theatrical platforms is very odd indeed – the man won all three Oscars available for music (Best Song, Best Score and Best Adapted Score) on the same night in 1973, for crying out loud – but that oversight is remedied magnificently in a show that’s part biographical drama; part crisp, acute comedy and part virtuoso piano and vocal performance. It’s a special piece of work, and it would be in any theatre in any country around the world. So to suggest that it’s somehow worth less when staged in Johannesburg because it’s doesn’t overtly reference apartheid, contemporary politics – or, for that matter, braais, lobola or Carling Black Label – is ludicrous, stupid and short-sighted.
What Roxmouth and co-star Sharon Spiegel-Wagner manage to do in a couple of tightly sequenced hours is to chronicle Hamlisch’s many and impressive achievements in the period between 1950, when his undeniable talent was emerging at Juilliard, and 2012, when he passed away, as well as to document the most important relationships in his life.
Those achievements included writing standards such as Nobody Does It Better, sung by Carly Simon for the soundtrack of the 1977 Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me; I Finally Found Someone, from the Barbra Streisand film The Mirror Has Two Faces; and The Way We Were, from the Streisand film of the same name. There is emotional and technical range aplenty, too, from the heart-breaking I Cannot Hear The City to the phenomenal precision playing required for The Music And The Mirror from A Chorus Line.
Hamlisch’s relationships included friendships with Simon and Streisand (the latter hilariously developed via a series of collect phonecalls from the superstar singer) and relationships with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, a great musical match, and Terre Blair, his soulmate.
All of the women are played by Spiegel-Wagner, with completely convincing authority – a notable achievement given the myriad costume changes and split-second timing involved. Her vocal dexterity is superb, too, as she switches accents and singing styles with aplomb, absolutely nailing Carly Simon in the production’s best scene and even doing Streisand’s peerless tone justice.
She’s an expert foil for her co-star as Hamlisch and Roxmouth – singer, pianist, actor, writer and musical director – revels in the freedom that support affords him. Hamlisch, as Roxmouth points out in his programme notes, was a mensch, a good guy and loyal friend, reliable and generous, so there’s nothing in the way of the usual conflict – the revealing of a dark side to an otherwise respectable sort. Instead, the best term to use to describe the man and the feelings his actions and music evoke is joie de vivre: joy both expressed and given, in this case to the audience in the theatre as Roxmouth performs.
I’m Playing Your Song is a show that amuses – every single gag works; a tribute to the skills of the writers as much as the actors’ delivery – and amazes. The performance level is breathtaking, and the outstanding compositions are given the treatment they deserve throughout. When people talk about “tribute shows”, they usually mean collections of glorified karaoke, but that format, when placed against this one, seems patently ridiculous. This show honours its subject in a respectful way, while also providing world-class entertainment.
As an American story, and one of exceptional quality, this piece deserves a run in that country, and it may be the ticket for its creators to secure and be celebrated in an Off-Broadway venue for a long, successful run. If that happens, we may lose some of our brightest stars (for the best possible reason), but hey, at least that’ll leave space on a local stage for someone to fit into a state-sanctioned stereotype.