Ten talented Asian-American performers sing about “life, love, and all the doors in between” in Lodestone Theatre Ensemble’s next-to-very-last production, an ingeniously-staged, brightly-performed revival of Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire’s musical revue Closer Than Ever.

The production’s twenty-two songs cover a variety of themes: unrequited love (“She Loves Me Not”), obsessive love (“What Am I Doin’?”), extramarital love (“One Of The Good Guys”), love in the afternoon (“Miss Byrd”), star-crossed love (“There”), love the second time around (“Another Wedding Song”), and sexual love (“Back On Base”).

Many of the songs have a comic tone. There’s “You Want To Be My Friend” (a woman’s response when the man she likes expresses a desire to just be friends), “The Bear, The Tiger, The Hamster, And The Mole” (a discussion of sex among the species), and “There’s Nothing Like It” (an anthem about our American obsession with dieting and exercise).

Others are more introspective. A woman reflects on the effects of her divorce in “Life Story”, another looks back at paths taken and not taken in “Patterns”, a loving son expresses his debt to his father in “If I Sing,” the whole cast join voices in a song about the aging process in “The March Of Time,” and a woman reflects on loving the wrong man, again and again, in “I’ve Been Here Before”

Contemporary topics are also spotlighted—the changing roles of women in “Three Friends,” couples juggling marriage and children in “Fandago,” and adult children caring for aging parents in “Fathers Of Fathers.”

Director Chil Kong adds an Asian touch to many of Closer Than Ever’s numbers, beginning with the show’s opener “Doors,” with set designer Luis Delgado incorporating a series of (appropriately) sliding doors (both Asian and Western-style), moved across the stage into various configurations throughout the evening. Martial arts figure in “You Want To Be My Friend,” which features karate kicks and jabs, and in “There’s Nothing Like It,” which starts out in a Taekwondo style fitness class. In “What Am I Doin’?” the father of the woman the singer is obsessed with speaks with a Filipino accent. “Three Friends” wear conical “coolie” hats and spoof Asian stereotypes in film and theater.

Closer Than Ever was a bit gay-inclusive even in its original 1989 off-Broadway incarnation. “She Loves Me Not” features a woman and two men each singing about their unrequited loves, and one of the men sings the lyrics “Heloves me not.”  In “Fandango,” Lodestone brings the show into the 21st Century by converting the opposite-sex married couple juggling work and child-raising demands into a lesbian couple whose baby wears a “No H8” jacket.

The cast of principals (Kong, Sharline Liu, DT Matias, Blythe Matsui, Paul Nakauchi, and Erin Quill) and ensemble members (EJ Arriola, Jully Lee, Jiehae Park, and Miley Yamamoto) are a talented bunch, with vocal skills ranging from good to excellent, Kong, Matias, Nakauchi, and Quill blessed with the most powerful pipes.

Standout performances include Matias balancing precariously atop a folding chair as if “up on the roof and out in the rain” in “What Am I Doing?,” Quill in feisty country western mode in “You Want To Be My Friend?” and sporting a lab coat while lecturing on animal (and human) species in “The Bear, The Tiger, The Hamster, and The Mole,” and muscleman Nakauchi looking particularly studly in wife beater and black bikini briefs in “I’ll Get Up Tomorrow Morning.” Liu wears horn-rimmed glasses as the nerdy “Miss Byrd,” who’s just returned from a secret lunchtime sex romp, and shows off her jazz rhythms in “Back On Bass,” accompanied by an uncannily bass-like keyboard performance by Howard Ho.

There’s also a touching Kong confessing a one-night stand he almost had many years ago (and later singing a loving tribute to his father), a humorously frazzled Liu and Matsui as a lesbian couple with an adult-sized babe in diapers (Arriola), Matsui displaying powerful acting chops in “Patterns,” Arriola and Park as a cute couple singing about love the second time around in “Another Wedding Song”

Kong, Matias, and Nakauchi join voices in beautiful three-part harmony to sing about three generations of fathers in “Fathers Of Fathers,” and Quill and Matsui beautifully juxtapose voices and songs in “It’s Never That Easy” and “I’ve Been Here Before.”

Choreographer RedRunningbear Savage died suddenly during rehearsals, and his work was continued by co-choreographer Matsui, with dance highlights provided by a sprightly “I Wouldn’t Go Back,” a Fosse-esque “Back On Base,” and the whole cast “driving” along LA freeways in “The March Of Time.”.

The full cast joins voices in gorgeous, stirring harmony in the opening number “Doors,” the Act One closer “I Wouldn’t Go Back,” and the gorgeous title tune which ends the evening on an emotional, inspiring note.

Musical director Akira Nakano and Ho provide beautiful musical accompaniment on keyboards, though occasionally, the unamplified voices have difficulty standing out over background music, and some lyrics are lost in a few of the numbers.  Christopher M. Singleton’s lighting design adroitly follows performers as they move about the stage. Black and white costumes by Karla Contreras look very good indeed against Delgado’s black walled set.

Lodestone’s Closer Than Ever serves as a fine musical showcase for some of L.A.’s most talented Asian-American performers, as well as offering Angelinos the chance to hear some of Maltby And Shire’s finest songs.  It is a musical revue which inspires its audience to reflect on their own lives and entertains in equal measure.

Lodestone Theatre Company, GTC Burbank, 1111-B West Olive Av., Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
August 8, 2009

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