Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Closer Than Ever


JAY Records

When looking for thoughtful, rich, articulate material about experiences and feelings that speak to mature adults with some life mileage, song sleuths, cabaret singers, musical theatre auditionees, and listeners have long gloried in and picked through the treasure trove known as Closer Than Ever. Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire's creations about the been there/done that/still in the game sensibilities and perspective that can only come with graduating from Intro to Adulthood 101 glow and simmer with perspective and lessons learned (maybe the hard way). The older-but-wiser people populating the songs of this revue bustle and bristle, nerves sometimes raw, but have honesty gleaming through most fragile charades and defenses. Mellowed or more motivated to live life to the fullest, more (understandably) impatient, the characters reflect and the truths resonate.

We already have an excellent cast album of this show, beloved by many. Do we need another one? Does anyone need a second scoop of ice cream of a similar but noticeably different flavor? Happily and interestingly, these are fresh interpretations by a skilled quartet of singer-actors. This is a cast album from an actual production, at the York Theatre. Some vignettes in song worked better on stage, especially a few where a character is ranting and raving, which can sound harsh or grating in audio. But it is clear that what's on the page justifies the rage. The only dirty word here is "wimp." These characters—and the singers who inhabit them—are staying true to the carpe diem sensibilities and consequences which follow the resultant slips in the real world.

Jenn Colella has impish charm with a willingness to explode and be sly. Much of it pays off, even on disc, with some of the "Miss Byrd" tale of the secret life of an office drone. Christiane Noll goes a bit wildly her own seething way with "The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster and the Mole" and also goes over the top, but it's a kind of fun ride. It makes her supposedly impartial, detached scientist character more the force of fervent opinions and adds a roller-coaster ride feel. While she can be somewhat "pleading" and socking home the message, her "Life Story" brings increasing sympathy as it moves in, but lacks the haunted, nagging feeling. Her voice remains a cornucopia of vivid colors. She lightens up neatly in some playful interactions with the other actors. The two men in the cast bring solid chops and a comfort within their skin, not trading vulnerability for vigor. George Dvorsky brings a kind of grounded gracefulness throughout, with a deeply-felt dignity to "If I Sing," the autobiographical song about gratitude to a father (lyrics by both Shire and Maltby). Sal Viviano is consistently appealing and winning, whether wistful (the gem "One of the Good Guys"), befuddled or blithe.

Admirably, the directors don't insist on the cast following the blueprint as gospel. There are different shadings and phrasing, some glibness here and clarifying moments there (or just personal strong choices). And, even more interesting, it's the lyricist himself, Richard Maltby, Jr., who directed this and the original production, with Steven Scott Smith back as the billed co-director. Note that Smith, Maltby's "former assistant," has "conceived by" credit back in the day whereas that handle now goes to Maltby. "Another Wedding Song" and "Back on Base" are by Shire alone.

Notably, there are a few numbers that weren't included on the original 2-CD set and one, "The Sound of Muzak" absent. Some of the pieces have deeper-rooted ancestry than the late 1980s with two versions and the 1990 recording. Several were cut from scores of the writers' earlier shows, especially Baby ("Patterns" actually appears on that show's cast album), but others go back even further—"She Loves Me Not" to 1961.

Whereas just specifically for the 1990 RCA cast recording, orchestrations were by Michael Starobin, here it's just piano and bass. Andrew Gerle's musical direction and piano work are sterling and striking. He's full of ideas and flair, can provide a driving forward leadership, a soft bed of sound for contemplation or a whirlwind on accents and subtle underpinnings that pay off. Crisply he pounces on the notes and rhythms. He worked with the team before and was part of a recording project of their work reviewed here quite some time ago (Throw It to the Wind).

For those of us ever-ready to gorge on Maltby & Shire's smart songs, their revue Starting Here, Starting Now (also revived at the York recently, with its original cast) is an irresistible musical-story banquet with several desserts of lighter, sweeter cute things, embracing youthful fun and frolic. But I've always felt that Closer Than Ever was Starting Here, Starting Now grown up, gray at the temples, less "fun," but with more wisdom to pass on.

- Rob Lester

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