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Chicago by John Olson

Closer Than Ever
Porchlight Music Theatre

Closer Than Ever
Holly Stauder, Rebecca Finnegan, Rob Lindley, Roger Anderson and Nicholas Foster
So few theater companies devote themselves entirely to musical theater that one might assume those who do must have an unusual commitment to the art of storytelling through song. Before I heard the score of Closer Than Ever, Porchlight’s decision to include a revue in their 2004-05 season seemed a bit out of character for a company that has focused on book musicals. Six of their last eleven productions were Sondheim shows, at that. After seeing the production I realized it wasn’t out of character at all. As director Nick Bowling says in his program notes, this revue is like 24 little musicals, each in a single song. Together, the 24 songs of the revue, written by Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire, provide testimony to Maltby’s incredible ability to tell a story through lyrics. They offer the juicy challenge to musical theater performers of acting the emotions of some five or six characters each.

This cast is easily up to that challenge. In Porchlight’s first season under an Equity contract, there are only two union members in the cast, but you’d be hard pressed to guess which ones aren’t, as the whole team sells their songs and moves around the stage like pros. Coming off her well-received performance as Mrs. Lovett in Porchlight’s recent production of Sweeney Todd, Rebecca Finnegan again gets some of the meatiest stuff, including comic characters like the angry (and possibly dangerous) “dumpee” of a failed relationship in “You Want to Be My Friend” and the secretary “Miss Byrd” with the secretly sexy life. She also has a heartbreaking moment singing the “Life Story” of a divorcée coping with the unique demands and opportunities facing independent women of the late 20th century.

One of Porchlight’s stated goals in signing an Equity contract was to gain the ability to cast more age-appropriate talent for certain roles, those less suited to the type of young struggling actors willing to work for lower pay in young struggling companies. They’ve made good use of this casting ability in hiring the Patrick Stewart look-alike Roger Anderson who combines warmth and approachability with a sense of experience playing the “older/wiser” characters, like the “dumper” to Ms. Finnegan’s “dumpee,” and an adult son paying tribute to his father in “If I Sing.”

Nicholas Foster and Holly Stauder get most of the young, romantic parts, like the anxious young man and woman who are unaware they are secret mutual admirers in “She Loves Me Not.” They bring a sweetly comic empathy to these characters, and a more biting touch to the competitive and ambitious yuppie parents of the baby of the “Fandango” number. They each have soliloquies in which characters consider their respective mid-life crises. Ms. Stauder scores with her big solo, “Patterns,” while Foster struggles a little more with the acting demands of his solo “One of the Good Guys.” Foster is a strong singer and an attractive and likable performer, but if he doesn’t expand his range of expressions soon I’m going to lead a campaign for a scholarship to send him to a boot camp led by an Actor’s Studio equivalent of Louis Gossett, Jr.’s character in An Officer and a Gentleman.

Rob Lindley gets most of the romantic young gay parts, including the secret gay admirer of “She (He) Loves Me Not,” a twist that gets a laugh for being unexpected. In the original production, that character was the only gay role, but here three other songs have receive gender and/or sexual orientation reassignment. The unlucky-in-love stalker of “What Am I Doing Here?” has been switched from straight to gay, as has the hesitant lover of “I’ve Been Here Before.” Maltby and Shire might have done the same had they been assembling this revue today rather than 1989, but I think they would have stopped before giving “Another Wedding Song,” a touching marriage proposal between a man and woman who are both previously-married, to a gay couple. Lindley and Foster do a nice job with it, but this change seems to me to dilute the irony and novelty of the song’s premise. Do two ironies make a non-irony? I wonder. Has a constitutional amendment been passed requiring every musical to have a reference to gay marriage? I suspected we were in trouble when such references found their way into both Spamalot and All Shook Up. Where are the conservative members of Congress when you really need them? Regardless, Lindley moves easily between comedy and his heavier stuff without ever seeming to break a sweat. For that matter, he moves easily from male to female as well, playing one of the girls in the act two opener “Three Friends.”

Bowling and choreographer Kevin Bellie do a great job of keeping the energy up and the cast in motion, using no more of a set than several movable chairs (and a three-dimensional backdrop of doors, designed by Kevin Hagan) to great advantage. They show nice imagination in creating visuals with the chairs and his cast. In my favorite bit, they turn the chairs into recumbent bicycles during a number celebrating the joy of health club memberships, “There’s Nothing Like It.” Music Director Eugene Dizon masterfully plays the onstage baby grand, backed by Alex Hunter on basses guitar and viol. They interact with the cast in “Back on Base” and “There.” Other than setting the piano maybe a notch too high, sound consultant Joseph Fosco makes the show’s amplification mostly unnoticeable (except visually, thanks to the headset mikes). I’m sure there’s a reason, but I have to ask, is it really necessary to have amplification to make five singers heard above a piano and bass in a room seating 150?

Maltby and Shire have developed somewhat of a cult following through their revues (including Starting Here, Starting Now as well as this one), but have been less fortunate with their book musicals like Baby, Big and earlier efforts. Unlike compilations of work by other show tune writers, the Maltby/Shire revues did not initially include material already well known from other shows, and had to justify themselves as something other than a career tribute.

Closer Than Ever, though its songs were taken from a variety of origins, is fairly tightly focused on the process of growing up from young adulthood through middle age, and on accepting the changes that come with physical and emotional maturation. The revue format and Maltby’s uncommon ability to tell these little stories with such resonance make Closer Than Ever a rich exploration of this territory, and with Sondheim and Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along, one of the few pieces of musical theater to do so. On second thought, it's not a surprising choice of material for this company at all.

Closer Than Ever will be performed Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 3:00 p.m., at Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont, through March 13, 2005. Tickets, priced from $27-$30 can be purchased at the Theatre Building Box Office or at any Ticketmaster Ticket Center, by calling 773-327-5252 or 312-902-1500 or visiting ticketmaster.com.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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