L to R: Katheryne Penny, Adam von Almen, Kevin Bailey, Valerie Perri. Photos by Tracey Roman.
Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire are a composer and lyricist team that never managed to get high enough off the ground to take flight. Working together and separately on a small handful of musicals over their careers, they never managed to rise above the “cult” niche and, considering how small the musical niche is at all nowadays...well, you get the picture.
Back in 1989 however, it seemed that perhaps this pair might still find their stride and perhaps ascend to Rogers and Hammerstein heights for which they aimed. Opening a few years after the moderate Broadway run of their musical Baby, Closer Than Ever is a two act musical review with a a cast of four (two of each sex), 25 or so songs and no book. That is to say, the musical numbers, though sometimes similar in theme, share no common plot or progression, leaving each song a mini-musical unto itself. With songs that often focus on regret and second chances, the tone of Closer Than Ever is refreshingly adult in subject matter but the score here rings poignant about as often as it does schmaltzy and/or dated.
This is both the charm and the laborious nature of watching Closer Than Ever, in its handsome but predictable revival on stage now through March 6th at International City Theater. While some of the songs do stand out and others are amusing enough to at least prove entertaining, there are other songs that weigh down the material and stretch it out beyond its means. Cutting a good six to seven of these and doing away with the intermission would help the flow immensely, but even taken in its unabridged form, one would be hard-pressed to imagine a more fluid and eloquent staging than the one director and choreographer Todd Nielsen has conceived.
L to R: Adam von Almen, Valerie Perri, Katheryne Penny, Kevin Bailey.
In spite of material that could use a good edit and two underwhelming male performances (more on that later) Todd Nielsen's production feels cohesive even when the material doesn't. He manages to create a mood and tone that are consistent and theatrical without reinventing the wheel or drawing too much attention to itself. Transitions move seamlessly from one song into another and the staging remains just surprising and light footed enough to keep the audience engaged and focused.
Musical Director (and pianist) Gerald Sternbach supplies the score with the musicality and tenderness it deserves and his love for the material is quite apparent. Aided by only an upright base ( beautifully played by Brad Babinski), the orchestrations are minimal but long reaching. Though at times I longed for a bigger sound, keeping the orchestra to just two pieces helped some of the material feel less dated than it is. A possible blessing in disguise.
L to R: Kevin Bailey, Valerie Perri, Adam von Almen, Katheryne Penny.
Also admirable was Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's set; an urban landscape made almost entirely of windows, doors and hanging light bulbs. Though simple, it proved not only a flexible playing space for the material but also a clear, theatrical metaphor come to life with inspiration from the materials most commonly re-occurring theme.
With a cast this small (four in total) any weak links are detrimental and unfortunately only the women really stand out in this production. While Katheryne Penny (Woman #2) is the more instantly likeable of the two, singing two of the show's most playful numbers (Miss Byrd and Back on Base), Valerie Perri's (Woman #1) performance seems to deepen consistently over the course of the musical. Penny's rendition of "Miss Byrd," a song I heard way too many times in college, is one for the books, striking the perfect balance of erotic revelation and quiet epiphany, while Perri's "Life Story" is believable and poignant from beginning to end. When the two come together at the end to sing "It's Never That Easy/I've Been Here Before," the wisdom and understanding that spans between the generation or so between them stirs up the kind of empathy Closer Than Ever often strives for but only sometimes reaches. It is a beautiful cathartic moment.
Alas, the two men in this production seem miscast, misdirected and sometimes just confused throughout the performance's duration. Kevin Bailey (Man #2) seems hell bent on turning in his best Robert Goulet impression, offering up a rich deep baritone voice but very little in terms of interpretation or depth of feeling. Adam von Almen (Man #1) on the other hand, sings nicely enough but constantly plays for neurotic humor and nine times out of ten comes across as more awkward than endearing. He misses the creepy and conflicted underlinings of "What Am I Doin'?" almost completely but does manage to tap into his vulnerable side just long enough to make "One Of The Good Guys" resonate the way it should.
In all fairness, the men's songs are cheesier and less emotionally complex than the songs written for the women in Closer Than Ever, but that is even more reason to find exceptional male talent to fill these rolls. I've seen wonderful actors turn mediocre songs to gold. Unfortunately here, that is not the case.
Closer Than Ever kicks off International City Theatre's 31st season, and although it is hands-down the best review-style musical I've seen them produce, I still long to see them return to staging a book musical every once in a while. Theater songs are meant to be heard in a surrounding context and no review, no matter how well done, can ever raise a song into significance the way that, say, "A Little Night Music" can for "Send In The Clowns."
That said, Closer Than Ever is a rarely staged work in spite of its economical requirements and offers enough pleasures to appease any true musical theater fan or existentially sympathetic adult. Despite its flaws you'll be hard pressed to find a better revival of it in this lifetime. If this sort of thing floats your boat, this is about as close as it's going to get.
Above, left: Kevin Bailey and Katheryne Penny.