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Closer Than Ever

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

George Dvorsky, Christiane Noll, Sal Viviano, and Jenn Colella.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Those who lament the Broadway musical's continual slide into juvenilia should at least partially rejoice in the York Theatre Company's revival of Closer Than Ever. The Richard Maltby, Jr.–David Shire revue, which originally opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1989, deals exclusively with the electric eccentricities of middle age. It shows, in exhaustive and delightful detail, how our notions of love, life, and self evolve as we reach (and pass) the point at which we have more years behind us than in front of us. And it does all this with a maturity, taste, and (for the most part) refinement that no longer seem to be a serious part of the musical theatre lexicon.

Cripplingly unrequited yearnings. Break-ups gone hideously wrong. Urban neuroses. Squandered opportunities. The pleasures and pain of exercise. All-consuming loss. Maddening parenting, and dealing with your own parents. Acceptance of what is and working to make it something better. All are among the themes that lyricist Maltby and composer Shire address in the 26 breathlessly contemporary songs comprising the taut evening, minus any apology or subterfuge. The writers know that everyone has endured some form of all these experiences, and can relate to them without trying—simply placing onstage, for example, a woman who's a hotter firebrand than she appears or a controlled man who's paying the price for his life of goodness, is sufficient to unlock either a smile, an ache, or (as is usually the case) both at the same time.

Or is it? Closer Than Ever, though excellent in its composition (it consists of original songs and numbers from other Maltby and Shire shows; good luck finding the seams), is not bulletproof. It requires, as do all shows, a presentation that interlocks with the writing in an airtight way and doesn't undermine itself for specious reasons. The York production, which Maltby himself has directed, may do justice to the show's score, but by depicting its parade of unsettlingly recognizable people too often as cartoon characters, it falls pray to the inclinations the show spends most of its two-plus hours rebelling against.

To be clear, there's nothing wrong with the company. Jenn Colella, George Dvorsky, Christiane Noll, and Sal Viviano are a sublimely gifted quartet, possessing richly varied voices and nicely contrasting performing styles that capture the wide-ranging spectrum of what being a grown-up means; musical director Andrew Gerle, at piano, and bass player Danny Weller, both of whom are positioned onstage throughout, generally match them in capability. But they rarely let the songs do the talking.

Each reference to female sexual empowerment in Noll's "The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster and the Mole" is accompanied by a clenched-fist hand gesture that suggests its singer's violent superiority over men. Dvorsky dons a stiff plastic smile throughout much of "I'll Get Up Tomorrow Morning," which hard-sells the lyric's depiction of surmounting everyday life's million little tragedies. "Back on Base," in which Colella cavorts with Weller, is so broadly played that it leaps right past "suggestive" and into "uncomfortable." And no song that cries out for subtlety, whether Noll's "Life Story" (one mother's history of the personal cost of the women's movement) or even the lightly romantic title song, entirely receives it.

Some of this might be related to the understated yet hyperactive concept—James Morgan's scenic design takes a strong cue from the opening number, "Doors," by lining the stage with a half-dozen of them, but they're neither well-used nor quiet—but the frequency of the cheese suggests the problem is too heavy a push toward "entertainment," with emotional truth left limping along the way.

The only numbers that unequivocally succeed are those find their fun naturally: "Dating Again" (one of two new songs since the original run), a mini-epic for the full cast about returning to the social whirl around age 40; "There's Nothing Like It," about the necessary evils of physical fitness; and "Three Friends," a ten-year history of three incompatible women who can't live without each other and prove it in close-singing and closer-dancing harmony. (Perhaps coincidentally, all three rely most heavily on Kurt Stamm's smart-stepping choreography.)

Most of the rest play like good ideas that don't know how much help they don't need. Viviano is best at side-stepping this: His "What Am I Doin'?", about being literally driven crazy by an imploded relationship, and "One of the Good Guys," about a man who can't find happiness in the contentment he always striven for, are the evening's acting highlights. Everyone else sounds wonderful but is visibly working, as if their lives depend on how many laughs they elicit per second of stage time. That the show survives this, and moves you in spite of it, is a testament to its strength, but one wishes it were more allowed to be less.

It's worth noting that Closer Than Ever was last revived in New York two years ago, in Flushing: Dvorsky and Viviano were joined there by the original women (Lynne Wintersteller and Sally Mayes), with Maltby also directing. That sublime rendition trusted itself and its audiences more, and better reflected the attitudes and values of its material. What exactly propelled the changes in focus between then and now is not exactly clear. But should Maltby still be tweaking this production, he'd do well to take a few steps back in order to bring his—and his show's—goals that much closer.

Closer Than Ever
Through July 14
York Theatre Company at The Theatre at Saint Peter's—Citigroup Center, 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street
Tickets online and current schedule: York Theatre Company

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