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Opening the door to a great songwriting duo

Theater Review: "Closer Than Ever" by Everyone's Theatre Company 

Opening the door to a great songwriting duo

If you're not a musical-theater fanatic, you've probably never heard of Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire. But if you enjoy theater songs, or just about any kind of songs, you definitely need to make their acquaintance. Everyone's Theatre Company is providing a very entertaining survey of this team's stellar work in the revue "Closer Than Ever," which opened last Saturday and continues this weekend.

click to enlarge Closer Than Ever
  • PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • Jeff Clair and Ruth Bellavia in Everyone’s Theatre Company’s “Closer Than Ever,” now on stage at Dazzle Theatre.

Maltby (the lyricist) and Shire (the composer) have collaborated since the 1950's, but they have probably been more successful on their own than as a team. Maltby won a Tony for directing "Ain'tMisbehavin'" and also wrote lyrics for "Miss Saigon"; Shire is an Oscar-winning movie composer. As Maltby and Shire, they've written two musicals that made it to Broadway -- "Baby" and "Big" -- and a bunch of others that didn't. This sizeable catalogue has been mined for two revues: "Starting Here, Starting Now," from 1977, and "Closer Than Ever," first produced in 1989.

But if it's true that unsuccessful shows can contain plenty of gems, "Closer Than Ever" is a jewel box: an evening of terrific songs with Shire's driving, tuneful music and Maltby's witty, pointed lyrics. I have to tip my hat to a writer who rhymes "Prelude" with "Quaalude." During the comedy numbers, you may find yourself leaning forward in your seat so that you'll catch every word -- including a few 1980's references that are wisely unchanged.

The songs are drawn together by a theme: opening the doors that life puts in front of you and dealing with whatever you find behind them. So the first song is literally an opening number, with the performers entering from four brightly painted doors and singing about life's possibilities. The songs that follow explore many of the possibilities, and despite their various sources, they hang together nicely.

The subject matter is often pretty everyday -- longtime friendships, marriages, second marriages, children, aging parents -- but this team mines familiar subjects for emotions and situations you don't always find in theater songs. They're also emotions and situations best appreciated by people who have seen a bit of life, which gives "Closer Than Ever" a sense of unity and a pleasingly adult air. This is no Disney musical.

Maltby and Shire's songs are so well executed, and they present characters and dramatic situations so effectively, that they are tiny book shows in themselves. That is certainly true of such "Closer Than Ever" numbers such as "What Am I Doin'?" (a scary-funny portrait of a young man "out of his mind with love"), "The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster, and the Mole" (a diatribe on animal reproduction delivered by a scientist considering conceiving a child without a husband), and "Life Story" (which is, well, the life story of a woman, from the 60's to the 80's).

The writers' excellent teamwork on the page is matched by the performers' teamwork on the stage, provided by a cast of just four nicely contrasted singer-actors: Lance Anderson, Ruth Bellavia, Jeff Clair, and Laura Marron. (Robert Sharman also helps out in a couple of numbers.) While the show is billed as "a concert presentation," and a few numbers are delivered standing at music stands, Billy DeMetsenaere's direction keeps all the performers pretty busy.

All of the cast members get several chances to shine as soloists. Clair is dandy as the manic young man in the "What Am I Doin'?" song mentioned above, and a bit later in the more reflective "One of the Good Guys." Anderson does a simple, moving job on "If I Sing" (both Maltby and Shire's tributes to their musician fathers), and Bellavia tells her "Life Story" engagingly and mines some heavy emotion in "Patterns," similar to Sondheim's "Losing My Mind" and equally as lacerating.

Marron has a natural "show voice" and is the most outgoing of the group; she has the show's comic highlight, "Miss Byrd," a sexy number about a receptionist who enjoys certain on-the-job perks, in which Marron works most of the stage without once leaving her swivel chair. Marron and Bellavia's voices combine to make some gorgeous music in "It's Never That Easy" and "I've Been Here Before" -- a medley that is like a three-minute pop opera. (I wish more pop operas were three minutes long.)

Maltby and Shire's songs are the kind of material musical-theater actors live to take on, and everybody in ETC's "Closer Than Ever" seems to be having a great time doing so. I wish more groups did this show; you will be glad that ETC is giving it a try, and probably go home afterwards and order the album.

  • Opening the door to a great songwriting duo

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