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Theatre in Review: Closer Than Ever (York Theatre)

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

Given the rapidly receding level of craft in our modern musical theatre, I'm beginning to think we should keep Closer Than Ever on permanent display. If we did, aspiring composers and lyricists could study the incomparable wedding of words and melodies in these songs by Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire, and aspiring librettists, directors, and producers might finally learn, once and for all, the one unbreakable rule of the form, which is increasingly forgotten in our world of jukebox musicals, Gershwin pastiches, and rock-star vanity projects: To write songs for a musical is to be a playwright.

It's a truth that Maltby and Shire have long had down pat, and it goes a long way toward explaining why Closer Than Ever, an apparent grab bag of cut numbers (many of them from early versions of the musical Baby) and bits of special material should be as funny, involving, and emotionally binding as a great book musical. Usually, these songbook shows are pleasant enough, offering a chance to relive some favorite numbers and sample some rarities from the artists' output. In contrast, Closer Than Ever is a finely chosen series of vignettes and penetrating character studies in song, a signal demonstration of what can be achieved when words and music are put to the purpose of creating an incisive dramatic situation. This isn't some thrown-together entertainment; in its ongoing examination of the joys and heartbreaks of young adults drifting into early middle age, and of middle-aged people both horrified and thrilled to find their lives turned upside down by unexpected circumstances, Closer Than Ever is as carefully put together as a short story collection by, say, John Cheever.

Thus the propulsive melody and cascading lyrics of "What Am I Doin'?" evoke the night when a youthful love affair slipped around the bend, turning its young protagonist into something of a stalker. The delightfully jazzy "Miss Byrd" delves into the steamy secret life of a seemingly dull real estate agent. "Three Friends" employs a buoyant melody and rapid-fire lyrics to wickedly send up the long-running foibles of three old friends, whose mutual attachment after all these years not even they can explain. "Patterns" wrenchingly portrays a housewife who, after years of going along to get along, can't stand it for one more day; its anguished lyric is underscored by a haunting melody. And, to my mind, there is no greater musical theatre song than "Life Story," the rueful confession of a fiercely independent woman -- a cheerful divorcee, single mother, and freelance writer -- who, pushing 50, suddenly wonders about the roads not taken.

Songs of this caliber require the very finest singer/actors, and, for the current staging at the York, Maltby, who also directed, has found an incisive and golden-voiced quartet. George Dvorsky and Sal Viviano, who appeared in an earlier production of Closer Than Ever two years ago at Queens Theatre in the Park, are old hands at this material, and they have a fine pair of partners in Jenn Colella and Christiane Noll. Colella isn't quite the comic tornado that was Sally Mayes, who appeared in the original 1989 staging and reprised it in Queens, but she has a sly wit all her own that is put to good use in "You Wanna Be My Friend," the ultimate in breakup songs, and the sexy, scatty "Back on Base," in which she vamps the show's bass player in minimal, but highly effective, fashion. Dvorsky pours his big voice into "Next Time," the broken-hearted lament of a suddenly single lover. Noll, handed some of the show's most difficult tests, passes each of them with ease. "The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster, and the Mole," the cri de coeur of a scientist who is fed up with men, has fiendishly difficult lyrics -- one wrong word, and you might as well leave the stage and go home -- but she sails right through it. She teases out the melancholy subtext of "Life Story" and powerfully wrestles with the subdued, but savage, emotions of "Patterns." She also partners beautifully with Colella on "It's Never That Easy/I've Been Here Before," a two-part invention that becomes a dialogue on the impossibility and necessity of romantic love. I've always resisted "One of the Good Guys," in which a husband and father recalls the illicit pleasures he has forgone -- it always seemed to me a little too knowing for its own good -- but Viviano compellingly turns it into the revelation of one man's secret torment. With so many vocal home runs, the guiding hand of director Maltby surely played a critical role.

The rest of the York production is also fine, especially James Morgan's door-filled set -- an allusion to the opening number, "Doors," which serves as the evening's ruling metaphor. Kirk Bookman's lighting and Nicole Wee's costumes are perfectly solid. There is no sound design because, in the intimate confines of the York, no reinforcement is needed; we get in unalloyed fashion the pleasure of four beautiful voices backed by an excellent piano and bass.

But the greatest pleasure of Closer Than Ever lies in experiencing the sheer intelligence and depth of feeling in song after song. I'm willing to venture that there isn't a note or a syllable that hasn't been carefully considered. When was the last time you felt that way at a musical?--David Barbour

(26 June 2012)

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