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Closer Than Ever


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Apple Tree Theatre

A war looms in the Middle East; the U.S. sinks into economic recession; crime and wanton violence spread like a plague throughout the nation; poverty, homelessness, and disease make millions suffer. But hey, you'd never know it from watching Closer Than Ever. The four cozily clad consumers who populate this revue of musical monologues are concerned about, you know, relationships.

These relationships aren't your traditional ones, mind you. There's no security here, no old-fashioned love of the June-moon-spoon variety. I mean, this is, like, the 80s, right? Or at least it was when Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire wrote the 23 songs that wound up in this 1989 off-Broadway show. And Maltby and Shire are plenty with it. (Shire, after all, is the composer-arranger who gave the world the movie sound track classic "Night on Disco Mountain" in Saturday Night Fever.)

So Closer Than Ever is about relationships for today. Here's a man who asks his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, "You Want to Be My Friend?" (She does not.) Here's a single woman venting her sexual repression by satirically considering the mating habits of "The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster, and the Mole." Here's a couple singing "Another Wedding Song" as they reflect on their previous marriages. Here's "One of the Good Guys" reflecting on a romantic fling he once sacrificed in order to stay faithful to his wife. Here's "Miss Byrd," the prim corporate secretary, fantasizing about the salacious secrets of her fellow drones. Here's the "Life Story" of an ex-hippie admitting nostalgia for her mixed-up marriage to a restless man ("So off he went with his hair of bronze," she sings, "to find a life like Kahlil Gibran's"). And here's a man singing "She Loves Me Not" about a woman who's singing "he loves me not" about another man, who in turn sings "he loves me not" about the first man.

Yet the more offbeat and unorthodox Closer Than Ever aims to be, the more mainstream it ends up. That's partly because of the high level of professionalism and efficiency of M. Seth Reines's staging of the show at Apple Tree Theatre; the very secureness of the production mitigates any feelings of insecurity the characters might want to communicate. But mainly it's because of the material. Pretty without being beautiful, clever without being witty, sentimental without being emotional, these songs are the work of a skilled pair of craftsmen who nevertheless fail to suggest any emotional involvement in the people or situations they're dramatizing. Great theater songwriters--whether of the sentimental variety, such as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, or ironists, such as Lorenz Hart and Stephen Sondheim--invest their product with passion of their own; that passion energizes the specific characters and stories they're writing about so that those characters and stories strike universal resonances. Taken just as songs, Maltby and Shire's work (better-known examples include "Starting Here, Starting Now" and "Autumn") are easy-listening sweetmeats, the kind of thing Barbra Streisand started singing when she decided to get more mainstream and less interesting. Taken as theatrical experiences, the team's songs are entertaining, intelligent, admirably crafted, and absolutely unconvincing.

A show could be a lot worse things than entertaining, intelligent, and admirably crafted; as theatrical diversions go, Closer Than Ever is better than most. Director Reines, choreographer Suzanne Avery, and the superb musical director Jeff Lewis (who, happily, is back on the theater scene after a brief escape into academia) have coached a quartet of splendid performances from Catherine Lord, Kathy Santen, David Studwell, and Jim Braet. Santen, as always, is pure delight, a sexy-silly musical comedienne in the Judy Holliday mold; her brassy rebuff of an ex-lover's offer of friendship ("I don't need another friend!") and her bubbly "Miss Byrd" routine, in which she dances around the stage while sitting in a wheeled office chair, are highlights. Lord, too often relegated to minor roles or to the chorus in shows at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse and Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre, shows herself to be a leading lady of warmth, presence, and musical sensitivity of a very high degree as the yearning ex-hippie in "Life Story" and as a sexually renewed woman in the cool and jazzy "Back on Base." Studwell and Braet provide very solid, if less mercurial, balance; Braet's soft, aching tenor in "One of the Good Guys" is quite beautiful, and Studwell is amusing as a hassled yuppie. Jeff Lewis's piano and Marc Hogan's string bass provide the singers with impeccable support.

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