New Rep's "Closer Than Ever": So Near and Yet...

The cast and instrumentalists for "Closer Than Ever"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures) 

“Closer than Ever”, the first offering of New Rep’s thirtieth season, is a musical revue (or not, according to its director Leigh Barrett) in two acts with two dozen songs from the team of Composer Richard Maltby, Jr. and Lyricist David Shire, best known for the musicals “Baby”, “Big”, and an earlier revue, “Starting Here, Starting Now”. This show opened in 1989 in New York where it ran for almost 400 performances. An evening of trunk songs that were either dropped from shows or were part of shows that were themselves dropped, the approach these creators took is more rewarding than those “jukebox” musicals that arbitrarily insert tunes where they can be forced into a score despite their irrelevance. Rather than go that route, Maltby and Shire conceived of an overall theme with songs about people of a certain age looking back on the ups and downs of their lives. It has the potential, in the right hands, to be a sometimes moving experience, and a very entertaining one. Fortunately, this production, the revised 1012 edition, is in the best of all possible hands, in the persons of Barrett (who performs as well as directs), Musical Director Jim Rice, and the remaining cast members Brian Richard Robinson, David Foley and Kathy St. George, with accompaniment by Rice on piano and John Styklunas on bass. Barrett has said elsewhere that she considers their take on the show as not a “musical revue” but a collection of individual stories. Yes and no, but more on this later.

In the opening song, “Doors”, Maltby shows how he envisioned this work as about doors opening before you, about doors closing behind you. Next is the song “She Loves Me Not”, an updated number to reflect modern romantic triangles. Then there’s “You Want to Be My Friend?” about a breakup, in which St. George shines. The next song, “What Am I Doing?”, featuring Robinson in great voice, is about what it’s like to be “out of your mind with love”. It’s followed by “The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster and the Mole”, about a female scientist whose “studies most reveal…the male’s inflated worth”, which goes on a bit. “I‘ll Get Up Tomorrow Morning (and go on)” spotlights Foley. Next, “Miss Byrd”, a secretary performing a very sexy number while literally never leaving her post, sings of her secret sex life as “one of those people who all look the same”, in which St. George is hilarious. “One of the Good Guys”, features a faithful husband and parent facing a midlife crisis about “lives (he) could‘ve led”. There follows a song about the fitness fad, “There’s Nothing Like It”, with its “feeling of well-being…(but) no one mentions pain”. “Life Story”, a glorious turn by Barrett, is a bittersweet tale of a “liberated marriage…and a sensible divorce” and the wise admission that the woman chose her way and she’s “not complaining”. The finale of the first act combines two songs, “Next Time” and “I Wouldn’t Go Back”, recalling doors that shut when someone leaves you and the desire to “do better next time”, with some self-deception…never back to where (one) was before.…next time, now!”

After the intermission, there’s the song “Three Friends”, covering a decade: first “joined at the heart…then “joined at the phone”. “Fandango” follows, with each parent wanting the other to “take the baby”. “There”, (with accompaniment by Rice), is a funny take on the typical torch song: the former beau who was “never really there”. Then there’s the sad number about “Patterns”, again showcasing Barrett, that “used to give…life a shape…that lead…nowhere at all.” Next come “There Is Something in a Wedding“ and “Another Wedding Song”, about a couple about to tie the knot, each for the second count: “you are the first to be second…so long as you’re the first to be last...from now on my first to be second comes first”. It’s followed by “If I Sing”, a paean to a father who taught his son to love music: “when there is joy in making music, it is you who put it there…if I sing, you are the music…yes, you’ll always sing…(and) live in me”, which crosses the border from sentiment to sentimentality. Then there’s a scat number, “Back on Base”, a play on words if there ever was one, (with fine accompaniment by bassist Styklunas): “We make sweet music when we‘re both back on base” (get it?). The cast next sings about “something (they) can‘t stop coming”: “The March of Time”. Then comes the plaintive “Father of Fathers” about becoming a father to one‘s elderly parent: “What man can say what it‘s worth…this commonest of pleasures…that I walked the face of this earth”, another overly sentimental number. Female bonding attests that “It’s Never That Easy”, and though “some days you‘ll be happy”…“I’ve Been Here Before”. The finale sums it all up: “If all we have come through could not break us, what‘s ahead can only make us stronger than ever, clearer than ever” and “Closer Than Ever”. This is, appropriately, the closer, about the passage of time and changing relationships, and how these are at one and the same time both life’s losses and gains.

The revue format is, by its very nature, fundamentally episodic and somewhat disjointed. While each number tells its own story, the show as a whole is not quite equal to the sum of its varied parts. It lacks the impact of a show with an arc that takes us along for an emotional journey. Some numbers will have more universal appeal and relevance than others, and some songs are stronger in their lyrics than their music. That said, the overall theme noted above, of folks looking back and assessing those losses and gains, comes through, largely thanks to the performances by these estimable singing actors, Barrett’s superb direction, and the musical back-up, so it’s at least entertaining cabaret. The accompaniment by Rice and Ztyklunas is well done, if a bit repetitive in Shire’s mostly unmemorable music, often saved by Maltby’s clever lyrics. The creative team’s contributions included versatile Set Design by John Savage, simple Lighting Design by Christopher Brusberg, mostly unflattering Costume Design by Miranda Kau Giurleo, and Sound Design by Michael Policare which was out of balance and sometimes distorted. (In a small venue like this, with powerful singers like these, and only two musical instruments, one might question the use of any amplification at all). Assistant Director Ryan Began provided some ingenious sedentary choreography.

Your enjoyment of the evening will probably depend on your attitude toward all such buffets: either you love loading up your plate with an eclectic batch of goodies, or you get slightly overwhelmed when the nutritious stuff and the gloppy fluff end up mixing into an unidentifiable melange. When the performances and overall direction are this good, you’d do well to consider this an excellent cabaret, sit back and enjoy. In the end, one could take issue with the claim that it’s not a revue. This show may be entitled “Closer Than Ever”, but, given its format, it’s so tantalizingly far from fully satisfying theatre.

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