note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
New Repertory Theatre opens its new season with “Closer Than Ever,” Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire’s Outer Critics Circle Award winner for Best off-Broadway musical, starring four Boston headliners. According to the play’s (I use that term loosely) information, “Closer Than Ever” is a musical romp of 24 songs, with each one representing individual stories of middle-age lifestyle, whether it’s love lost or found; balancing a hectic marriage, career, and parenthood simultaneously; taking care of one’s parent; facing post-divorce dating - the usual suspects in contemporary living.
In two hours and two acts, this winsome cast - Leigh Barrett (who also is director) portrays Woman #1; Kathy St. George, Woman #2; Brian Richard Robinson, Man #1; and David Foley, Man#2 - use on-stage staircases, freestanding, wheeling doors, a series of chairs and a few tables to rapidly convert Jon Savage’s set for the next “story,” or song. Background projected images greatly enhance each number, while incomparable pianist-music director Tim Rice and bassist John Styklunas grace the stage, providing fine accompaniment. They even get into the act at times.
The theatric concept of introducing the next “act,” or song, of opening one door to a new beginning or closing doors in others, is clever initially; but it quickly becomes tired. “Closer Than Ever” accomplishes one great thing, though. It allows each performer to unleash his/her specific strength, which, at times, is terrific. While versatile firebrand Kathy St. George has proven her musical excellence over and over again and has bowled audiences over with her acting, she bares her comedic chops in song, “Miss Byrd,” typing along, very primly, then mischievously prances and wheels about in her chair, revealing her sexuality. “I’m on fire, but I’m not saying a word!,” she winks.
Her duet with David Foley in “You Wanna Be My Friend?” is hysterical. While he tries to slink away from her rampage, she boots him out, singing, “I don’t need another friend!,” drawing loud applause.
In contrast, St. George and Foley hit high notes in their duet, “There,” when she claims he’s never there, while he presents his side - of not being there.
St. George’s antics and facial expressions are delightful, but ratchets up the show even further with her jazzy scat, in “Back on Base!” and flirting with bassist Styklunas.
Leigh Barrett’s gorgeous opera-trained voice and stunning ability to make every song her own, especially shines in “Life Story,” and “The Bear, The Tiger, The Hamster and The Mole,”. She and St. George also are a touching duet in “It’s Never That Easy”.
Brian Richard Robinson musically asks“What Am I Doing;” and is soulful in “One of the Good Guys,” where he wrestles with temptation, missed opportunity and a chance at happiness. Robinson, along with Foley and Rice’s vocal harmony, is outstanding in his nostalgic “Father of Fathers”.
Unfortunately, despite this cast and musicians’ collective talent, after awhile “Closer Than Ever” becomes bland, a musical revue of songs with all-too familiar contemporary themes.
BOX INFO:Two-act, two-hour musical, music by David Shire, lyrics by Shire and Richard Maltby Jr., conceived by Steven Scott Smith, appearing with New Repertory Theatre, through Sept. 28, in the Charles Mosesian Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown: Sept. 17,18,at 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 19,26, at 8 p.m.; Sept. 20,27, at 3,8 p.m.; Sept. 21,28, at 2 p.m.;Sept. 25, 2,7:30 p.m. Check for related events. Tickets:$25-$60; student, senior, group discounts. Call 617-923-8487, visit newrep.org or the Box Office.