I went into the recent off-Broadway revival of Maltby and Shire’s musical “Closer Than Ever,” presented by The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s on the East Side of Manhattan, blind, as it were. I had little knowledge of their music, and did not see the 1989 original New York production. So I was ready for anything.
It was opening night. The crowd was supportive. The cast, Jenn Colella, George Dvorsky, Christiane Noll, and Sal Viviano, were exceptional. Directed with assurance by Richard Maltby Jr., with musical direction by Andrew Gerle, they teased every bit of humor out of each and every Maltby and Shire song. Jenn channeled her inner feminist Dolly Parton for You Wanna Be My Friend; Christiane was moving and thoughtful for Life Story; Sal, a perfectly reasoned stalker in What Am I Doin’? and George, the picture of patience in I’ll Get Up Tomorrow Morning.
“Closer Than Ever” is less a musical than a musical revue. There is no set location: these characters (and there are many of them, played by all four cast members) could be anywhere. A city, a suburb, a rural community. They could be anyone; the characters are anonymous, and have no names. Because there is no real story line, there is no one to care about; the audience gets about two and a half minutes to get to know a character before a switch is made to a totally different character.
It’s not that “Closer Than Ever” has dated; people still bitch and moan about the same relationship and life problems depicted in the clever lyrics of the Maltby and Shire songs. But I longed for more. I longed for a set of friends, with a focus on one. Give him a mid-life crisis or something. Write brilliant songs for the friends that surround him, suggesting varying degrees of unhappiness, to really confuse the main character. By the end, he has some sort of epiphany. But that song would be Being Alive. That show would be “Company,” a show that was genuinely funny, moving, and shattering because it was so utterly specific. That composer is Stephen Sondheim.