Closer Than Ever

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday September 14, 2014

'Closer Than Ever' continues through Sept. 28 at the New Rep in Watertown
'Closer Than Ever' continues through Sept. 28 at the New Rep in Watertown  (Source:Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Photography)

"Closer Than Ever" isn't a play, and it's not a typical revue, either. It's more of a song cycle, with its two dozen songs by lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. and composer David Shire providing everything you need for, say, three or six minutes of micro-theater: Snug little portraits of people falling in love, power couples trying to balance work and family, couples breaking up, divorcees looking back on past relationships (but, mind you, "not complaining!"), adult children caring for elderly parents, people observing how friendships change over time along with the participants... in short, people mulling over their lives.

If these songs carry a ring (and a zing) of truth, that's because they were based on actual life experiences (Maltby must have interviewed everyone he knew to gather such a comprehensive set of lyrics). This isn't necessarily a show specifically for the middle-aged, but those in their 40s, 50s, and older will probably feel a deeper connection to much of the material than your typical 20-something.

That was certainly the case when I attended "Closer Than Ever," which is playing now through Sept. 28 at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown. The audience was largely made up of the over-50 set, and the energy in the room was subdued, but appreciative. (Walking out afterwards I overheard various theatergoers comparing notes about their favorite songs.)

If the audience were a bit on the quiet side, that's not for want of energy from the stage, where Leigh Barrett (who also directs), Brian Richard Robinson, Kathy St. George, and David Foley embody solos, ricochet off each other in duets, and mesh (sometimes not entirely successfully, but sometimes to gorgeous effect) in three- and four-part harmonies. The voices of the four leads are quite different in character, with Barrett sounding as though she's had classical or opera training and St. George and the men sounding more "show tune."

The voices of the four leads are quite different in character, with Barrett sounding as though she's had classical or opera training and St. George and the men sounding more "show tune."

Pianist Jim Rice steps in at one point as an auxiliary male vocalist on "Fathers of Fathers" (in contrast to "Three Friends," a number with a trio of female characters -- one of whom is sung by Robinson), and his voice, that of a lounge singer, adds yet another color to the palette.

And this is a colorful show. Projections add a sense of setting (especially in songs like "The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster and the Mole," which is cast as a TED Talk, "Another Wedding Song," and What Am I Doin'," in which an ex, huddling in the rain outside the house of his former flame, can't believe his own stalkerish behavior), and there's some minimal set dressing: door frames for the opener, "Doors," which describes what's to come ("What kinds of secret lives are residing there / Hiding all behind those doors?"), cafť tables for a few rounds of speed dating, a desk (and suitably engraved name plate) for the steamy "Miss Byrd," and rolling office chairs for some furniture-enhanced dance in "March of Time."

Assistant Director Ryan Began handles choreography duties; he clearly knows his way around movable door frames, and he adds physical sparkle to these songs.

The music, in contrast, is stripped down to its essentials. Far from the soft rock, lushly produced Top 40 sound the Original Cast Recording sometimes achieves, all this production has by way of an orchestra is Rice and a bass player. (The bass player, too, has a chance to shine in the song "Back on Base.")

The results (as mentioned above) are mixed, but the sentiments aren't: This is a show that invites reflection, sympathizes with life's hard bumps, and then finds a way to send you off with a smile.

"Closer Than Ever" continues through Sept. 28 at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown. For tickets and information, please visit www.newrep.org/productions/closer-than-ever

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.