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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Closer Than Ever and The Musical of Musicals

Closer Than Ever is a musical for grown-ups about grown-ups. It's a revue about the everyday trials of life, told through urbane lyrics and intricate, memorable music and performed by a gifted quartet of performers. It's a show whose meaning has intensified in the twenty years since it first opened Off-Broadway, and that's why this anniversary production—featuring two of the original stars—is so satisfying.

The songs—lyrics are by Richard Maltby, Jr. (who also directed), music by David Shire—tell of love lost or found, friendships solidified or shattered, and decisions that end in joy or regret. In one song, a man who considers himself "One Of the Good Guys" brags about his stability, then confesses about a night when his fidelity was tested: "Whichever choice you take, the longing is a given." Later, a woman tells her "Life Story" by celebrating her pioneering independence, then stops to consider what that independence has cost her. A man ponders the impact of becoming a father himself, while another man deals with an aging father. A mild-mannered office worker reveals herself to be much more uninhibited than her co-workers would ever suppose; later, another woman—played by the same actress—wonders aloud why she would "rush to break my own heart again" by beginning a relationship.

Not all of the twenty-four numbers are winners; occasionally the songs take the easy route by offering up undemanding laughs on over-examined subjects like weight loss and dating. But most of the songs are richly perceptive character studies that examine the "commonest of pleasures" and what makes them special.

Maltby is a terrific storyteller, charting the ups and downs of life with witty wordplay and triple (or sometimes sextuple) rhyme schemes. Shire's music matches the lyrics in sophistication; it's mostly smooth, melodic, jazz-inflected pop, but there are detours into rock and country. There's also an interesting use of counterpoint which permits the actors to tell multiple stories at once. And the singers are backed by a swinging piano/bass duo; pianist Patrick Brady, another veteran of the original production, contributed the beautiful, intricate harmony arrangements.

Sally Mayes and Lynne Wintersteller are the ladies, and their voices sound undiminished compared to their performances on the cast recording from two decades ago. Mayes specializes in wry comedy numbers, while Wintersteller imbues her contemplations of time well spent and misspent with hard-earned conviction. They're matched nicely by George Dvorsky and Sal Viviano. Dvorsky's rich voice brings a sense of gravitas to his solos and a deft touch to the humorous songs. Viviano relies a lot on his light, easygoing charm, but can bring depth to his portrayals when he needs to.

Closer Than Ever doesn't have any flashy showstoppers like a conventional musical, and director Maltby's production can seem sedate at times, with its tasteful costumes, unobtrusive set, and virtually nonexistent choreography. Yet it's full of songs that grab your attention and don't let go, delivered with passion and intelligence. It may not dazzle, but after twenty years, Closer Than Ever shines brighter than ever.

Closer Than Ever runs through May 23, 2010, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices range from $34 to $42, with discounts available for students and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-785-0100, online at www.brtstage.org, or by visiting the box office.

Musical of Musicals
Alex Bechtel, Craig Fols, Sarah Gliko (front), Rebecca Robbins and Carl Clemons-Hopkins
Photo: Mark Garvin
There's another show now playing with a four-member cast, but it's one that will make you feel good for an entirely different reason. It's The Musical of Musicals - The Musical!, which lampoons Broadway in a clever and often biting way. Director Craig Fols offered up the best production of this show I've seen, with staging that emphasizes the show's strengths while minimizing its deficiencies.

Scriptwriters and songwriters Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart aimed their satiric sights at five of Broadway's best known composers and songwriting teams: Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kander and Ebb, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman and Andrew Lloyd Webber. The songs ape their sources convincingly, while the script keeps the jokes coming furiously (with lots of puns that reference the original composers' best-known titles).

It's all undeniably clever, but can get caught up in its own cuteness at times. And the sameness of the jokes (especially in the final segment) can get numbing if the crew isn't careful. I had seen two previous productions of The Musical of Musicals (including, in 2004, the original Off-Broadway staging), and the show always struck me as a "Carol Burnett Show" skit that went on too long for its own good.

Fortunately, Fols' production avoids most of the show's pitfalls. The cramped space at the Walnut's Independence Studio works to the show's advantage, giving it a sense of warmth that was missing in past productions. And the five skits are each staged in a markedly different way, avoiding the repetitiveness that can make the show tedious. There's also some droll choreography by Dax Valdes and witty costumes by Mary Folino.

Fols acted in the original production, and he reprises his roles here; he spoofs villains from Sweeney Todd to the Phantom of the Opera with a lot of zest. Carl Clemons-Hopkins is the stentorian hero in the Rodgers and Hammerstein segment, then plays the wide-eyed juvenile in the Herman skit. Sarah Gliko is the petulant heroine in the Oklahoma! routine, and a would-be Evita who spends her time "belting trite platitudes." Rebecca Robbins sends up Elaine Stritch in the Sondheim segment, then plays the overly chipper heroine (with more than a touch of Mame and Dolly) in the Herman parody. And pianist/guitarist Alex Bechtel gets into the act from time to time, even getting to join the chorus line in the show's finale.

The Musical of Musicals is far from perfect—you can sense the authors running out of ideas halfway through the Kander and Ebb segment at the end—but it's a lot of fun. Fols and his crew give this show the light and affectionate touch it needs, and the result is a production that earns a lot of laughs.

The Musical of Musicals - The Musical! runs through June 27th, 2010 at the Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $30, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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