Leigh Barrett and her collaborators sing and act beautifully, and they are obviously having a great deal of fun performing Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire’s heartfelt songs about the trials and transitions of middle age.
Closer Than Ever. Lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr., Music by David Shire. Directed by Leigh Barrett. Musical direction by Jim Rice. Scenic design by Jon Savage. Produced by the New Rep Theatre, Arsenal Center for Arts, Watertown, MA, through September 28.
By Evelyn Rosenthal
There are a lot of good reasons to like the New Rep’s production of Closer Than Ever, Maltby and Shire’s collection of story-songs about the trials and transitions of middle-aged, middle-class urbanites. It’s a chance to see the superb Boston-area actor and singer Leigh Barrett in her directorial debut with the Watertown company, where she has appeared in many shows. All four cast members are top-notch singers, and pianist Jim Rice and bassist John Stylklunas accompany them impeccably. And although the musical has no book, the imaginative staging and Ryan Began’s snappy choreography give the numbers a continuity that makes it feel like more than a concert or revue.
Developed at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Closer Than Ever had a successful off-Broadway run in 1989–90. The show combines songs that had been dropped for various reasons from the composers’ musicals, including their 1983–84 Broadway hit Baby, and others that grew out of experiences like their own second weddings. The lyrics chronicle relationships at their beginnings and endings, choices and their consequences, and changes that confront modern grownups. The quality of the score, though, is somewhat uneven. Some of the lyrics are mired in platitude, try too hard, or strike the ear clunkily, and a few of the melodies and harmonies fall into cliché—the swelling chorus of “Next Time,” for example, and “If I Sing” and “Fathers of Fathers,” both of which lay on the schmaltz a little too much for my taste. I wish Barrett had trimmed a few of the more sentimental, less musically interesting numbers (“There Is Something in a Wedding” especially pales beside “Another Wedding Song,” which follows it). But there are enough witty, thought-provoking lyrics, rhythmic variation, and lovely melodies and harmonies in many of the songs to keep the audience tuned in.
Each cast member gets at least one solo chance to shine. As a lab-coated scientist giving a TED talk on the mating habits of “The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster, and the Mole,” Barrett’s character tries to convince herself she doesn’t need a man to raise a child, just like many females of various animal species. And in “Life Story” she poignantly portrays a woman coming to terms with a disappointing life, insisting, “I’m not complaining.” Brian Richard Robinson convinces us he’s “One of the Good Guys,” who’s glad to be the kind of man who turns down a tempting one-night stand on a business trip, though it doesn’t stop him from regretting what might have been. And David Foley conveys the everyday pressures of family life as he waits for the commuter train singing the witty, propulsive “I’ll Get Up Tomorrow Morning.”
The biggest reason to catch Closer Than Ever, though, is Kathy St. George, a petite dynamo who packs so much energy, knowingness, and expert comic timing into her performance that it lifts the show up several notches. She does a great “had it up to here” rant in “You Wanna Be My Friend?,” a woman’s incredulous response to the clueless man who tells her how wonderful she is and then dumps her. And in the hilarious showstopper “Miss Byrd,” she sizzles as a quiet office worker spilling the secrets of her hot sex life.
Many of the numbers featuring two or more players also work well. The opener, “Doors,” sets the evening’s theme with a catchy tune and well-turned lyrics about the excitement and terror of life changes. In “There,” a couple played by St. George and Foley sit side by side in chairs that face away from one another as she sings, with sadness, about his inability to be truly present in their relationship. College friends catalog the ups and downs of their relationship over the decades in “Three Friends,” sung by Barrett, St. George, and Richardson (though, oddly, the song refers to the three as female, which Richardson decidedly is not). And all four throw themselves gamely into “There’s Nothing Like It,” a sweaty paean to the joys and pains—mostly pains—of getting fit (“So I bought myself Jane Fonda / Have you noticed, that in the Fonda family, Jane is thin / and Peter’s thin / and Hank was thin . . .”).
There’s much in Closer Than Ever that middle-agers and others will recognize, perhaps identify with, and laugh about. Despite a few uninspired offerings in the score, Barrett and her collaborators sing and act beautifully, and they are obviously having a great deal of fun performing Maltby and Shire’s heartfelt songs.
Evelyn Rosenthal is the former editor in chief and head of publications at the Harvard Art Museums. She is also a professional singer, specializing in jazz and Brazilian music, and has taught English and composition at Massachusetts community colleges. She writes about musical theater, books, and music for the Arts Fuse.