I went to my first New Repertory show for a rather obscure song cycle musical, Closer Than Ever. I went into the show not really knowing what to expect from this little ditty. Described as a musical revue, Closer Than Ever unfolds in two acts of strictly musical treats, music by David Shire and lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. (though, on closer inspection, this breakdown isn’t really fair when both men’s works seems interwoven and intricate in their symbiotic relationship). Perhaps the closest approximation to the show’s style is, as the composers term it, a “bookless book musical.” What that means is anyone’s guess, but I’d like to hazard one. Closer Than Ever is the Songs for a New World for middle-aged baby boomers. Is that too simplistic for the musical? Absolutely; as a twenty-something man with no cellulite (yet) overgrowing my body, no lost or broken lover, as far as you can get from the burdens of kids, I found myself touched by this tale of searching desperately for a connection. What are we closer to than ever? The end? Hope of a new beginning, even after hitting the middle? I’d like to assume that New Rep’s Closer Than Ever, directed by the always impressive and stunning Leigh Barrett, is a little closer to my heart and closer than ever to finding some new questions, and maybe even a few answers, to life’s most troubling issues.
Leigh Barrett presents her most authentic self in this musical. She lets her hair down, and she lets the music guide her through her storytelling, as director and as an actor, joined by Kathy St. George, David Foley, and Brian Richard Robinson. Barrett, with expert help from the beautiful and always accommodating piano accompaniment and music direction of Jim Rice (if you haven’t heard him at Club Café, you’re missing out on a treat on a weekday night) and the styling bass-playing of John Styklunas, lives up to The New York Times hype of this score and musical; it really is one of the half-dozen finest American theatre scores of the last decade.
I have trouble seeing how this musical fits into the New Rep’s thematic season, “Paradox: Heroes & Antiheroes, Virtues & Vices,” but Barrett creates a strong concept in her “Message From the Director.” In this musical, you’re treated to “songs and stories of regret, anxiety and disappointment, of joy, new love, getting older, and change.” And boy does she treat you to a night at the theatre. We open with the quartet singing of the opportunity of “Doors,” which ends with a gorgeous flourish that perfectly cements Barrett as a tasteful director with help from Assistant Director and Choreographer Ryan Began. “She Loves Me Not” is a clever trio on the beauty (or difficulty) of trying to connect in the technological age.
And then the show really gets started with Kathy St. George delivering her first of several spit-fire solos. St. George is a master at musical theatre interpretation, and, unlike many singers, she treats a song like dialogue, each moment like a part of a story, and each song like a win-or-lose battle with stakes and chances. In “You Wanna Be My Friend?”, she faces off against her man friend, and she shows us, with painful reality about how relationships don’t get any easier the older that you get. Of course, not all of the actors have this same comfort with storytelling through song. Brian Richard Robinson delivers a gorgeous melody in “What Am I Doing?” but loses the song in his lack of journey, lack of arc. David Foley also loses me on “I’ll Get Up Tomorrow Morning;” the song offers some strong acting moments, but he struggles with the vocals, a recurring theme throughout the performance, though he delivers fine on the group numbers.
While the men are never bad, they seem to be in a different class than Barrett and St. George in musical theatre performing and singing. St. George’s “Miss Byrd” is a tour de force for her; she finds charm and grace, sassiness and compassion in a four-and-a-half minute number. The character numbers seem to be the best treats; Barrett creates a dynamic scientist with all of the answers in “The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster and the Mole.” Robinson delivers his best solo in “One of the Good Guys,” aptly emphasizing rich lyrics to get closer than ever to a believable guy, with a rich and luxurious tone and range. Her strongest number comes in “Patterns,” a soaring and haunting song about the comfort (and maybe even stifling stagnation) that we get from the things that we know. Barrett treats the song like a plea, a search for answers, and following her discovery to the very last moment is breathtaking.
Barrett’s journey into directing proves that musical theatre actors can bring the necessary nuance and skill to another area of theatrical production, infusing her Closer Than Ever with just enough attention to detail, while leaving her strong, tight-knit cast the ability to make each song their own. Her choreography and direction in group numbers is especially tight, thanks in no small way to Began’s tasteful eye, with “Dating Again” and ‘There’s Nothing Like It” bringing down the house in laughter and glee. Jim Rice keeps the musical accompaniment and moments intimate, and focuses on the performers each step of the way. He joins the men in the sweeping “Fathers of Fathers,” a gorgeous exploration of the journey of fatherhood; Robinson and Foley sounded stunning in harmony with Rice. Jon Savage’s scenic design with subtle backdrops of windows and doors, provides the perfect touch to Barrett’s concept of connecting and new opportunities; a closing door matched with an open window meet us again and again throughout the production. Miranda Kau Giurleo’s costume design is mostly tasteful and flattering, though the men fare less well in the women, especially in the group numbers. Overall, the production value is high, consistently exceeding expectations.
Now celebrating their 30th season, New Rep is a strong presence in Boston, offering affordable and high-rate theatre. If this production is any indication of production values, I may need to go to the Watertown Arsenal Center more often for their treats. They treat the patron right; the ushers might be the nicest that I have ever encountered. The pluses next to almost every song prove that Barrett picked the right show, and she complemented the strong score with some strong singers. While most of the songs featured some variation on “Life doesn’t stop at age 45,” the actors, especially Barrett and St. George, touch each song with enough humanity and passion to transcend their character’s ages and experiences to touch a deeper part of our need to connect at any point in our lives. For now, I feel closer than ever to the simple connections of falling in love with a new score with the help of some old friends in the Boston theatre scene.