Published on February 16th, 2016 | by Greggory Moore0
CLOSER THAN EVER @ International City Theatre
References to same-sex couples and DVRs aside, Closer Than Ever feels like it must have originated before Rodgers & Hammerstein. It’s a 24-song musical revue loosely tied together by the theme of the romantic relationship, with little theatricality and not a little schmaltz.
Be prepared: two dozen songs is a lot of songs for a night of musical theatre, particularly when there’s no plot tying them together, they’re uninterrupted by so much as a word of dialog, and the singers are supported only by piano and contrabass. As a comparison, that’s just one fewer song that we get in Pink Floyd’s The Wall, an instrumentally varied work with dialog that runs 10 minutes shorter than Closer Than Ever.
Why compare Closer Than Ever and The Wall, two musicals (to use the term in its broadest sense) that have next to nothing in common? Because it’s hard to imagine anyone having tastes eclectic enough to love both. In my entire experience with musicals, I cannot come up with two works more unlike one another. And I love The Wall, so….
This is not to say Closer Than Ever is inherently bad. In its first iteration it won the 1989 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical (ICT is staging the 2012 revival version), so plenty of people like it. And de gustibus non est disputandum, am I right?
But even if the musical style of Closer Than Ever sat well on my palate, I believe I would have come away with a tongue numb from oversaturation. Several of the songs seem too long by half, with central phrases (“I was there,” “I wouldn’t go back”) repeated ad nauseam, standing toe-to-toe with the brashness of repetition in Phil Collins’s “One More Night”. The intended humor of a scientist comparing human to animal mating (“The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster, and the Mole”) loses any ability to tickle before the singer is halfway through the literally dozens of animals she invokes. When “The March of Time” builds up to yet one more round of its on-the-nose refrain (yes, with actual marching), it’s hard not to be distracted by the unintended irony.
Unfortunately, director/choreographer Todd Nielsen does little to dodge these pitfalls. From the minimalistic set to stilted movement, the music is left to fend for itself. There are exceptions. As the title character in “Miss Byrd”, a song about a button-down workplace woman who’s gets randy in her off time with just about everyone in her apartment building, Katheryne Penny amuses through both vocal delivery and zooming about on a computer chair. Even better is “Dating Again”, on which the entire company shines. Here Nielsen’s blocking really gives the audience something to look at, which animates and elevates the song.
Musically, too, there are moments. “What Am I Doin’?” and “There’s Nothing Like It”—both sung by Adam von Almen, the most consistently strong among the performers—contains some affecting piano passages (played by musical director Gerald Sternbach, whose playing is beyond reproach, as is bassist Brad Babinski’s).
But too often Richard Maltby, Jr.’s lyrics feel strained. With lines like “Holy smokes!” and “Will she find me a fogey?,” even having the singers proclaim “bullshit!” and talk of “throbbing nipples” cannot keep the proceedings from feeling dated. That’s to say nothing of a bevy of strained rhymes, few of which are made with tongue in cheek. (My favorite: “Off he went with his hair of bronze / To find a life like Khalil Gibran’s.”)
Far more than The Wall, it’s Ain’t Misbehavin’, the final show of ICT’s 2013 season, that serves to illustrate why Closer Than Ever does not measure up for me. Ain’t Misbehavin’, a musical revue that is the closest thing I’ve seen to Closer Than Ever, features the artistry of “Fats” Waller, high-energy visuals (from movement down through to costuming), and a conceit that provided a superstructure for the collected songs. It wasn’t my favorite type of musical theatre (for that you gotta go with a Chicago or a Sweeney Todd), but it worked.
So although there’s probably no musical revue soundtrack on the planet that’s going to edge its way among my Pink Floyd albums, from experience I know that International City Theatre can do musical revues I enjoy. But Closer Than Ever was never going to be one of them.
CLOSER THAN EVER BEVERLY O’NEIL THEATRE • 300 E OCEAN BLVD • LONG BEACH 90802 • 562.436.4610 • ICTLONGBEACH.ORG • THURS-SAT 8PM, SUN 2PM • $47-$49 • THROUGH MARCH 6
(Photo credit: Tracey Roman)