The York Theatre Company's revival of Closer than Ever, a 1989 revue of material by Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire, begins with a song called “Doors,” and the creakiness of the show is audible from the start. “What’s in the skies from Boston to Florida? / High-rises rise, each being horrider,” complain the singers, and you want to slap some good plain sense into them right then and there. Who are these people, and why are they so meticulously plaintive? Bucking the rule against apologizing for a performance in advance, Maltby’s program note ends with a gentle disclaimer: “If from time to time you catch the faint whiff of people talking about a different age, well, they are.” Well, yes, that’s true, but it’s not just the occasional datedness of the sensibility that galls. It’s the stiffly sentimental therapy-session tone of the score as a whole: middle-aged, upper-middle-class Upper West Side types sharing a view of their navels in song.
Closer than Ever started in the cabaret world, and that’s where it belongs. In migrating to a larger stage, the intimacy of the conversational score gets blown up beyond its resolution. Mild though it seems, the revue's success has had an unfortunate effect on musical-theater writing in the past 25 years. Maltby’s lyrics are intelligent and Shire is an adept pop composer, but their collaborations belong to a school of songwriting—Craig Carnelia and Amanda McBroom are among the other faculty—that is basically static. Great musical-theater songs take place in the present or future tenses; Maltby and Shire favor the past, in dilatory story songs that pick apart what is already done. The four performers in the York revival, directed by Maltby, sing solidly indeed, but their Broadway chops are designed for portions larger than they've been served. Sal Viviano falls most obviously into the trap of phoniness; Christiane Noll and George Dvorsky skirt it better, the former by shrinking, the latter by smiling. The unmistakable star of the show, however, is Jenn Colella. A veteran of several Broadway flops, Colella is a revelation here, combining richly detailed comic vitality with a tough, smart edge that slices clean through her songs. Closer than Ever means to approach real life more credibly than traditional musicals do, but only in her performance does it ever come close.—Adam Feldman
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