Over two dozen simply gorgeous songs by Maltby and Shire, four sensational triple-threat performances, and inspired direction by Todd Nielsen add up to yet another triumph for Long Beach’s International City Theatre in their fabulous season-opening revival of the off-Broadway classic Closer Than Ever.
A “bookless book musical” is how lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. and composer David Shire have described their oft-produced musical revue (conceived by Steven Scott Smith), and though there is no single through-line (or distinct set of characters to propel one), every one of Closer Than Ever’s twenty-six songs tells a story, and never more so than with Nielsen crafting each of them into a four-minute musical.
Unrequited love, obsessive love, extramarital love, love in the afternoon, star-crossed love, love the second time around, sexual love—love (and life) is what Closer Than Ever is all about … with not a second of spoken dialog to interrupt music and lyrics.
Those in the mood for the comedic will relish Valerie Perri’s lecture on sex among the species in “The Bear, The Tiger, The Hamster, And The Mole,” Katheryne Penny’s “You Wanna Be My Friend,” (a young woman’s outraged response when the man she likes expresses a desire to just be friends), and the entire company’s musings about our national obsession with finding Mr. or Ms. Right in “Dating Again.”
Those in search of the introspective will relish Kevin Bailey’s “If I Sing” (a son’s loving expression of the debts he owes his father), Perri’s reflections on the breakup of a decades-long marriage in “Life Story,” Adam von Almen’s “One Of The Good Guys” (a married man’s recollections of his one and only almost one-night stand), and Penny’s ruminations on one bad romantic choice after another in “I’ve Been Here Before.”
Add to that songs about the changing roles of men and women, couples attempting to balance marriage and children, and adult children caring for aging parents … and if it’s an experience you and I or anyone else has ever had or will ever have in life, there’s probably a Closer Than Ever “short story” that will resonate.
The evening’s brightest highlights include von Almen balancing precariously “up on the roof and out in the rain” and poised to jump in “What Am I Doing?”, Penny raging against a man with an impossible demand in “You Want To Be My Friend,” Penny and von Almen as young marrieds juggling work and baby-raising demands in “Fandango,” and Penny’s outwardly straight-laced realtor “Miss Byrd,” just back from a secret lunchtime sex romp.
Rather than stick to Closer Than Ever’s usual mix of 30/40something performers, Nielsen adds an extra something to his by casting a pair of couples several decades apart in age, and since triple-threats don’t get any more sensational than veteran stage stars Perri and Bailey and up-and-comers Penny and von Almen, that extra something is something extra special indeed.
Audiences won’t easily forget Penny’s and von Almen’s exquisite celebration of love the second time around in “Another Wedding Song” or Perri’s transcendent “Patterns” and “Life Story,” and the soaring sopranos of Perri’s “It’s Never That Easy” and Penny’s “I’ve Been Here Before,” performed individually and then in counterpoint, are simply heavenly.
The tenors shine equally bright, Bailey in “I’ll Get Up Tomorrow Morning” and “If I Sing,” von Almen in “One Of The Good Guys,” and with musical director Gerald Sternbach adding his own golden vocals to “Fathers Of Fathers,” this is one tenorrific evening.
As for full-cast harmony, it doesn’t get more exciting than in the opening number “Doors,” the Act One closer “I Wouldn’t Go Back,” and the gorgeous title tune that ends the evening on an emotional, inspiring note.
Director/choreographer Nielsen finds ways to integrate movement and dance throughout to make this Closer Than Ever far more than just four singers singing, and with Sternbach on grand piano and Brad Babinski adding his own sexy licks opposite Penny in the jazzy “Back On Bass,” the production is in expert musical hands indeed.
Scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz takes as her inspiration the show-opening “Doors,” her ingenious set lit to striking effect by Stacy McKenney. Resident costume designer Kim DeShazo gives each performer several classy looks, Dave Mickey’s sound design mixes vocals and instrumentals to perfection, and resident properties designers Patty, Gordon, and Christopher Briles and resident hair and wig designer Anthony Gagliardi do their accustomed topnotch work.
Closer Than Ever is produced by ICT artistic director caryn desai. Pat Loeb is production stage manager and Joseph Trevino assistant stage manager. Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA.
Additional program credits go to Benjamin Hawkins (assistant lighting designer) and Richie Ferris (casting associate).
A bona fide crowd-pleaser and one that inspires its audience to reflect on their own lives and those around them, Closer Than Ever opens International City Theatre’s 2016 season on a high note. (Make that a musical high note.)
International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.
February 12, 2106
Photos: Tracey Roman