SOPHISTICATED SONGWRITING IN CLOSER THAN EVER
One might well approach this musical about growing into middle age with some trepidation. The fact is that plays about midlife usually tend to possess more than a whiff of self indulgence – they’re either full of characters who spend their time whining about the fact that they aren’t young any more, or the piece strives to offer the message that the older folks are just as hip and together as the young, even when they’re “mutton dressed as lamb.” Not to mention the possibility of songs about “Geritol” and dance numbers in which plastic hips fly off into the first rows of the audience. Who on earth would want to see that, for Heaven’s Sake?
What a pleasure is it, then, to find that Closer Than Ever, a sweet and refreshingly sophisticated musical revue from Broadway veterans Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire (conceived by Steven Scott Smith), embraces the maturity of middle age with grace and humor, and without falling prey to clichéd wisecracks, tacky condescension, or comparisons with other times of life. Maltby and Shire’s musical defines midlife as its own era, without relation to either youth or old age, and with its own customs, sensibilities, and traits.
Maltby’s production consists of a quartet of performers in their 40’s warbling songs about love, loss, and heartbreak – but the difference is that both the musicians and the material come with baggage attached. These are people who have lived a bit and for whom the naïve allures of love have transitioned into something slightly more world weary and ironic. The songs, slightly sentimental, but sometimes quirky and a bit dark, boast lyrics that possess a Sondheim-like edge, and it is no coincidence that some of the performers occasionally seem to resemble refugees from A Little Night Music, Follies, or Company.
The show’s general purview consists of issues that are usually addressed somewhat later in life. For instance, the hilarious “Dating Again” is a rueful, swingy number about romance – not first love, but the travails of getting back into the game after a divorce. Chisel faced, slightly hangdog James Moye ruefully notes, “I wonder while we mingle, why she’s 40 and still single,” even as the gal he dates (a nicely embittered Jacquelyn Piro Donovan) clearly wishes she were somewhere else as well.
The theme of “second chances” reoccurs in the far more romantically spirited ballad “You Can Be First To Be Second,” about a pair’s second marriage. In the heartfelt duet, “It’s Never That Easy,” the advice given by an older woman (Donavan) to a younger woman, is contrasted with the words of another woman (Anika Larsen) as she dumps her lover. The fast-paced patter-y “Three Friends” posits the interactions of a trio of old childhood pals now grown in different directions, who can’t quite recall why on earth they like each other. And in the strangely subtle and touching “One of the Good Guys,” a faithful husband expresses his ambivalence over his memories of not following through on a one night stand.
Closer Than Ever’s first production was in 1989 and the play is steeped in the zeitgeist of its era: The characters are all decidedly well-to-do and their concerns are noticeably those of the heart. One can’t help but wonder about the lack of range to some of the situations: Although there’s plenty of material about love and romance, there’s little to speak of about other issues, such as the desire to achieve meaning in ones life or the great dread of what happens after middle age. Also, if the show had been written today, one can’t help but think that there would be much more about economic issues.
Still, this is a first-rate musical, combining the intimacy of an old style cabaret revue with the unusually intellectual heft and wisdom of midlife meditation. The ensemble’s charismatic and beguiling performances are brisk and tuneful, with a noteworthy lack of downbeat despair. The production’s upbeat tone and wise undercurrents are wonderfully entertaining – but the show’s real skills, of course, are to find something pleasant to say about growing old
photos by Carol Rosegg
Closer Than Ever
York Theatre Company at at the Theater at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church
scheduled to close on November 4, 2012
for tickets visit http://www.yorktheatre.org