During its current season, the York Theatre Company has been featuring what it describes as "classic shows from Off-Broadway." Currently playing at the York is Closer Than Ever, a rich and vibrant revue from the songwriting team of Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyrics) and David Shire (music).
Closer Than Ever opening at the Cherry Lane Theater in 1989 and ran for 312 performances, yielding an indelible original cast recording, one that became a favorite for me and many of my theater friends.
But here's the thing about that word "classic." If a show that opened three years after I graduated college is now considered a classic, then that means that I have officially become a classic myself. Sort of a hard realization to come to, although I take solace in noting that I am extremely well-preserved.
It's really appropriate that Closer Than Ever, one of the major themes of which is facing the realities of adult life, should provide such a personal realization. The show is essentially a revue composed of trunk songs and random numbers that Maltby and Shire had written over the years, and represented a worthy and in many respects more satisfying follow-up to their earlier revue, Starting Here, Starting Now. It almost seems as though the songs for Closer Than Ever were written to be part of the same show, they fit so well together stylistically and thematically.
The themes that emerge are adult in the most fulfilling sense of the word: the complexities of mature romance, the insecurities of modern life, the minor demons that dwell just below the surface of so many seemingly high-functioning people. The result is a wonderfully rich and intelligent series of human stories, qualities that are so evident in the score to Maltby and Shire's first Broadway musical Baby, and so utterly lacking in their score to their only other Broadway show to date, Big.
For the original production of Closer Than Ever, Maltby shared director credit with one Steven Scott Smith. Here he handles the task alone, and his hand here is extremely sure but delicate. The pace is brisk but never rushed, and there's a remarkable economy to the staging. Matlby seems intent on letting the material and the performers shine, and that's exactly what happens.
Few lyricists are as deft as Richard Maltby when he's on his game. The richness of Closer Than Ever comes directly from Maltby's smart and insightful words, as well as the depth of characterization therein. But where would Maltby's lyrics be without David Shire's deceptively effortless music? Shire matches Maltby song for song with music that sets the tone and enhances the impact of Maltby's wise and clever words.
Aphorisms suffuse nearly every Maltby lyric ("Whichever choice you make, the longing is a given," "Streams of next times don't make one today."), but they rarely come off as preachy. There's also plenty of evocative imagery ("Seals are dancing in my flesh," "Only snag in all this lace"). True, there's maybe an overabundance of '70s and '80s psychobabble ("Suffused with a mystic glow"), but that's perhaps intentional on Matlby's part. These people are, after all, products of their time and place.
As big a fan as I am of Maltby, and of Closer Than Ever in particular, the show features two songs that have always felt entirely too saccharine to me, too ham-fisted in their sentimentality. One of these is "If I Sing," Maltby's homage to his father, the renown conductor. The other is "Fathers of Fathers," a treacly song rightly cut from Baby. Both songs feel overly cloying and pat in a show otherwise replete with hard-eyed wisdom and complexity.
This production of Closer than Ever features some fairly significant changes, deletions, and additions. There are a few new lyrics here and there, mostly to update the cultural references ("And so I dug out mom's Jane Fonda," "Angela's husband calls Glenn Beck a hero"). One of the characters in "March of Time" has become a lesbian, and the turgid "Like a Baby" has thankfully been cut. For new material, there's a new male solo called "I'll Get Up Tomorrow Morning," which is about resilience in the face of life's many challenges. The song meant well, but didn't really go anywhere. There's a new song called "There's Something in a Wedding" that sets up the matrimony sequence in the show, and it was fine but unmemorable.
The best new song is called "Dating Again," and features all four performers in a brisk round robin of speed dating for those who suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves back on the market. The lyric is classic Maltby: marvelously wry and reflecting so much human understanding. ("Wondering if he'll call me and hoping that he won't.")
Of course, with a show this intimate, all the great material in the world isn't going to make the show work without a solid cast. The current production of Closer Than Ever boasts a thoroughly professional and appealing cast. Two of my latest theatrical pet peeves are indistinct articulation and over-singing, and the four performers here thankfully had crisp diction and controlled but intense singing styles.
The highlight for me in the cast was Jenn Colella, in the track originated by Sally Mayes. Colella is fast becoming one of my favorite performers with her humor, presence, and personality. Colella was a highlight in both High Fidelity and Lucky Guy, two otherwise unfortunate productions. (Would someone please write a book show that's worthy of this woman?) Here, she gives a delightfully restrained rendition of "Miss Byrd," and a deliciously naughty take on "Back on Base." Also strong was Christiane Noll in the Lynne Wintersteller track. Noll was one of the best parts of the underrated Broadway revival of Ragtime, and here she brings a very similar sense of intensity and honesty to "The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster and the Mole" and, most notably, in "Life Story."
The gentlemen in the cast, while professional, had a few more...well...snags amid the lace, as it were. Sal Viviano in the Brent Barrett role was clearly trying too hard, at least at first. He seemed to think that every line of every song needed a movement or an indication, although this became less noticeable as the show progressed. Viviano also sported a broad Vegas-y smile during the song, "What Am I Doing?," which is an odd choice considering that the song is about a stalker, one who knows that what he's doing is crazy. George Dvorsky, in the part originated by Richard Muenz, also got a bit forced and overly hand-y at times, but he more than compensated with moments of intense emotional clarity.
Closer Than Ever plays at the York through July 14th. If you can't make it, rest assured that the show will be recorded. Either way, Closer Than Ever is a refreshing respite from the overblown spectacles and underwritten movie treatments passing for entertainment on the main stem.