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Stage Review

In ‘Playing His Songs,’ glimpses of the way he was

From left: Christiane Noll, Carol Woods, and Karen Ziemba in the Cape Playhouse production of “They’re Playing His Songs: The Music of Marvin Hamlisch.”

KATHLEEN A. FAHLE

From left: Christiane Noll, Carol Woods, and Karen Ziemba in the Cape Playhouse production of “They’re Playing His Songs: The Music of Marvin Hamlisch.”

DENNIS — Remember when Tracy Jordan of “30 Rock’’ decided he absolutely had to attain EGOT status, i.e., win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony?

Marvin Hamlisch had EGOT luster to spare. The composer, who died last August at 68, racked up four Emmys, four Grammys, three Oscars, and a Tony, not to mention the Pulitzer Prize he shared with his collaborators for “A Chorus Line.’’ He was an award magnet. Especially in the 1970s, Hamlisch seemed to be everywhere.

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Yet his fixed address was too often the middle of the road. You could seldom call Hamlisch’s music truly inspired. The temptation always lying in wait for the gifted and prolific is to spread themselves too thin, and Hamlisch composed too many bland movie soundtrack numbers, too many generic love ballads. That quality of creative dilution comes through in “They’re Playing His Songs: The Music of Marvin Hamlisch,’’ a pleasant but largely electricity-free revue at the Cape Playhouse, conceived and directed by David Zippel.

Zippel, two decades ago, wrote the lyrics and Hamlisch the score to the Broadway musical adapted from Neil Simon’s movie “The Goodbye Girl.” Now he has enlisted an able quartet of Broadway performers — Tony winner Karen Ziemba (“Contact’’), Carol Woods, Christiane Noll, and Jason Graae — to sing and dance their way through a host of tunes from Hamlisch’s copious catalog. The director also relies heavily on video footage of Hamlisch holding forth in interviews or accepting awards. The composer comes across as likably down-to-earth, but not much more than that. Still, there are amusing moments: When Cher botches his name as “Marvin Hamshmisch’’ and “Hamelsmish’’ at the Academy Awards in 1974, Hamlisch jauntily addresses her as “Seer’’ when he reaches the podium.

Even granting that it’s a musical tribute and not a full-fledged biographical portrait, the frequent video glimpses of Hamlisch suggest we’ll eventually learn a bit about what drove the man who was behind all that award-winning music — as audiences did from watching Stephen Sondheim on video at the Broadway revue “Sondheim on Sondheim,” for example. Here we don’t, except for the hints of insecurity we sense in a video that captures Hamlisch’s reedy-voiced rendition of “If You Really Knew Me.’’

After a while, the video bits start to feel like padding, a situation aggravated by the abrupt transitions back to the live performances. Hamlisch’s film work figures prominently, with, for example, a lengthy sequence from “The Goodbye Girl,’’ featuring a quarreling Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss. When Woods begins the insipid “Nobody Does It Better,’’ with lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, she does so against a backdrop image of Roger Moore as James Bond in “The Spy Who Loved Me.’’

Near the end of the show, Woods is also saddled with the unenviable task of trying to wring fresh emotional juice from the most done-to-death song in the Hamlisch canon, “The Way We Were.’’ She doesn’t succeed.

“They’re Playing His Songs’’ comes most fully to life when the focus turns to Hamlisch’s crowning achievement: 1975’s “A Chorus Line,’’ with lyrics by Edward Kleban. Ziemba, Woods, and Noll team up for a shiver-inducing “At the Ballet,’’ a beautiful evocation of childhood yearning and loneliness redeemed by the saving power of dance.

Ziemba, who stands out in the cast by swiftly etching a distinctive personality to match each song, brings a spirit of chin-up defiance to “The Music and the Mirror.’’ It’s a cri de
coeur from a veteran dancer who wants a second chance to shine in the spotlight, but Ziemba gives it none of the desperation Donna McKechnie brought to the song in the original production. Ziemba’s hoofer isn’t asking, she’s telling.

That makes the ill-advised medley that follows even more puzzling. Zippel blends “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three’’ — a female dancer’s jaunty account, in “A Chorus Line,’’ of how she turned to plastic surgery to enhance her physical assets and her career — with “Smile,’’ the title tune from a 1986 musical about beauty pageant contestants. But here, “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three’’ is sung by Graae to the three female performers, as if they are contestants and he is the judge, advising them on ways to improve their looks. The unembarrassed, even exultant, celebration of self-reinvention that originally characterized the song acquires here the sour taste of snickering derision.

Noll helps restore the evening’s equilibrium a few songs later, managing to transcend Sager’s clichéd lyrics in “Through the Eyes of Love,’’ from the 1978 film “Ice Castles,’’ and also delivering a lovely rendition of “Ordinary Miracles,’’ in a knockout teal-blue gown. (The “costume consultant” is six-time Tony winner William Ivey Long.)

Inevitably, the quartet closes out “They’re Playing His Songs’’ by performing the final two numbers from “A Chorus Line’’: “What I Did for Love’’ and “One.’’ The performers sound just fine. I just wish this show left me with a clearer sense of what Marvin Hamlisch did it for.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.
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