Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Closer Than Ever
New Repertory Theatre

Also see Nancy's review of Sweeney Todd

David Foley, Jim Rice, Leigh Barrett, Kathy St. George, John Styklunas and Brian Richard Robinson
New Repertory Theatre in Watertown proudly celebrates its 30th anniversary season with the theme of "Paradox: Heroes & Antiheroes, Virtues & Vices." Perhaps a little off-topic, the first show is Closer Than Ever by composer David Shire and lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr., a two-act musical revue which its authors have dubbed "a bookless musical." With first-time director Leigh Barrett calling the shots, the cast of four includes Barrett, David Foley, Brian Richard Robinson and Kathy St. George, with musical direction/piano by Jim Rice and bassist John Styklunas thrumming along.

Although I had not seen the show before, I was familiar with about one third of the twenty-six musical numbers, thanks to their receiving some play on Standing Room Only on WERS-FM, the Emerson College radio station. Each song tells a self-contained story, so the singers get to show off their acting chops as they create a variety of characters. The common thread is an examination of the middle years, but most of the situations pertain to a broad demographic. Audience members under the age of forty might shudder at some of the things that appear to be in store for them, while those with an AARP membership can look back with a survivor's mentality.

Barrett and her assistant director/choreographer Ryan Began do an admirable job of blocking and movement, making sure that the show never feels static. The pièce de résistance involves the quartet rolling around on wheeled swivel chairs lamenting "The March of Time," and they all get a good workout in "There's Nothing Like It" which conjures up the image of Jane Fonda as exercise guru. They also repeatedly go up and down two sets of stairs which flank a raised platform upstage center, and enter and exit through four movable doors. Every so often they sit still to perform a ballad.

While often clever or humorous, the lyrics are far from revelatory, but these veteran performers are able to wring out meaning with their ability to act the songs. Barrett's wry delivery gives "Life Story" an Everywoman appeal, while we feel her angst in "Patterns." "One of the Good Guys" features Robinson sweetly singing about choices and regrets, and he joins with Foley and pianist Rice as the third voice for lovely harmony in "Fathers of Fathers." Foley solos in "If I Sing," a son's tribute to his father for giving him the gift of music and arguably the most tear-jerking song on the playlist. He is a little wistful and a little apologetic in his duet with St. George ("There") apparently set in a marriage counselor's office.

Saving the best for last, it is time to heap praise on the diminutive Ms. St. George. In her first solo turn in "Miss Byrd," she instantly creates a character that has the audience in stitches. The song is suggestive and she milks it for all it's worth. Her ability to shift gears from the comedy in one song to touch your heart in another is impressive. In the second act, she delivers some steam heat in "Back on Base" while pawing Styklunas, who somehow manages to plunk his instrument with virtuosity while maintaining a straight face. In any of the groupings, St. George brings the spark and makes everyone up their game. She and Barrett show a special bond in the penultimate pairing of "It's Never That Easy" and "I've Been Here Before."

Closer Than Ever began its life at the Williamstown Theatre Festival during the summer of 1989, moving to New York the following October. It ran for 312 performances at the Off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre with the cast of Brent Barrett, Sally Mayes, Richard Muenz and Lynne Wintersteller. New Rep is fortunate to have an accomplished foursome of formidable voices (although there were a few off-notes on opening night) and the masterful musical duo at their backs. It's a light entertainment that will make you think (but not too much) and have you tapping your toes (never too much).

Closer Than Ever performances through September 28, 2014, at New Repertory Theatre, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA; Box Office 617-923-8487 or Music by David Shire, Lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr., Conceived by Steven Scott Smith, Directed by Leigh Barrett, Musical Direction by Jim Rice; Scenic Designer, Jon Savage; Costume Designer, Miranda Kau Giurleo; Lighting Designer, Christopher Brusberg; Sound Designer & Engineer, Michael Policare; Assistant Director & Choreographer, Ryan Began; Stage Manager, Natalie A. Lynch

Cast (in alphabetical order): Leigh Barrett (Woman #1), David Foley (Man #2), Brian Richard Robinson (Man #1), Kathy St. George (Woman #2)

Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

- Nancy Grossman

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