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Closer Than Ever

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Closer Than Ever
Lynne Wintersteller, Sal Viviano, Sally Mayes, and George Dvorsky.
Photo by Dominick Totino.

Closer Than Ever, the Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire revue, would not claim that 20 years don’t exert a toll. Dealing as it does with both the deaths of marriages, ideals, and dreams that characterize the dark side of middle age and the joys and accomplishments that accumulate then as they can’t earlier in life, it knows that time is never on our side. But you would never know that from the spectacular production the show is receiving at the Queens Theatre in the Park, which doesn’t just defy time, but practically reverses it.

It does this by adhering to the successful formula of the original 1989 production (which played at Off-Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre) in almost every way. All the songs are intact, though some have been tweaked and two nice new (if unnecessary) numbers have been added. Also present are two of the founding cast members, Sally Mayes and Lynne Wintersteller; the director, lyricist Maltby; the musical director and pianist, Patrick Brady; and the only other musician, bassist (and Mayes’s husband) Bob Renino.

So this is less a revival - though it is that, in the purest, most classical sense - than a tight-knit family reunion. As such, you don’t watch it as much as you live it. Mayes, Wintersteller, and their new castmates, George Dvorsky and Sal Viviano, paint across 26 songs a lush landscape of the pains and pleasures of life in one’s 40s and beyond that hasn’t lost its relevancy.

Unrequited love and more ordinary romantic confusion, resilience, and the fun and frustration of all sorts of relationships show up in many musicals’ songs, true. But how often do you encounter something like “The Bear, The Tiger, The Hamster and The Mole,” in which a biologist probes the animal kingdom to justify her distrust of men? Or the heady mixture of relief and regret that drive “One of The Good Guys”? Or comic numbers that address both the benefits and drawbacks of exercise (“There’s Nothing Like It”) and aging (“The March of Time”) without any protective irony? Or loving tributes to the old from the mouths of the young who finally understand?

Maltby and Shire’s songs - some original, some from their shows - delve into the modern adult condition in a way few others have, and that seem a logical progression from their earlier, more youthful revue, Starting Here, Starting Now. And they do it with such an uncompromising clarity and tunefulness that you can’t help but be taken aback by its complex simplicity. Doors of all kinds may be the show’s prevailing theme (and are sufficiently represented in Roman Tatarowicz’s dreamscape set), but it’s the hopes and fears, progress and setbacks, and the intricacies of interaction of all sorts that resonate most loudly. So you should expect laughter, tears, and some of the most astute lyrical interpretation you’ll witness in New York this season.

Dvorsky’s balancing of adoration and exasperation in “I’ll Get Up Tomorrow Morning” is a powerful example of how to darken laughs without losing them, and his “If I Sing,” a musician son’s valentine to the father from whom he learned everything, is devastating in its emotional simplicity. Viviano brings a withering and wry self-reflection to “One of the Good Guys” that makes it as sad as it is instructive, and pours on the charm in his duet with Mayes, “Another Wedding Song,” about two second-time-arounders who are sure they’re doing it right now.

But the real attractions are, of course, Mayes and Wintersteller, who don’t just recreate their performances but reenergize them with two extra, vital decades of experience. Strictly speaking, both were probably too young originally to unlock the deeper nuances and shadings in their characters; now, however, they have all the authority they need, and haven’t lost a bit of their spark.

Mayes is a fiery delight raging against a licorice-spined boyfriend in “You Want to Be My Friend” and cunningly coy as the secret-keeper in “Miss Byrd,” who proves that you can never really take anyone at face value. She’s all jazzy playfulness in “Back on Base,” an odd duet in which Renino suavely intones his own words of love only by plucking his stand-up instrument’s strings. But in the penultimate “I’ve Been Here Before,” she’s pure plangent, clear-eyed heartbreak. Few performers can (or do) show so many colors across so many disconnected songs, but Mayes makes the task look effortless.

As does Wintersteller, who’s a crack comedienne in “The Bear, The Tiger, The Hamster and the Mole,” but otherwise a model of crystalline urban sophistication on the edge. Her second-act “Patterns,” about the most tragic aspects of life’s tragic unpredictabilities, is haunting and utterly without the self-indulgence that so often creeps into other renditions of it. But she also reigns over the consoling “It’s Never That Easy,” and especially the show’s literal and figurative centerpiece, “Life Story,” about a former soldier on the frontlines in the sexual revolution who discovers too late that she should have paid more attention to the homefront. By turns tender, tremulous, and hilarious, she chart’s one woman’s uneasy existence with the grace of a master sculptor gradually revealing the soul within the stone.

“Life Story,” by the way, is one of Maltby and Shire’s crowning achievements - a narrative number of such unassuming intensity that today’s writers of similar “art” songs (from Jason Robert Brown on down) would do well to observe and learn from its masterful construction and wonderfully witty wordplay. But the rest of the score is hardly less insightful, exploring with unusual acuity and addictive melody the virtues, values, and obstacles everyone faces as the years tick away. Without ever becoming depressing or maudlin, it shows that life, like wine, can - and should - improve with age. Closer Than Ever certainly does.


Closer Than Ever
Through April 25
Queens Theatre in the Park - Claire Shulman Playhouse / Main Stage - Flushing Meadows Corona Park (Directions)
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Queens Theatre in the Park