For those who are yearning for the return of live theater – and that means most of us, doesn’t it? – MNM Theatre Company is jumping in to fill that void with a simple, but artfully affecting streamed production of Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire’s Closer Than Ever.
This introspective and heartfelt revue has been produced many times in South Florida since its premiere off-Broadway in 1989. As entertaining and poignant as the show has been over the years, it takes on added resonance in these days of COVID-19 shutdown. Nor is the irony lost that a show called Closer Than Ever could have such emotional impact at a time that we are all forced to be far apart.
Songwriting partners for more than half a century, Maltby and Shire may well be the most accomplished composer-lyricist theater team to never have a hit show on Broadway. Still, they have found success by recycling numbers from their underappreciated book musicals into revues. In 1977, they gathered songs from their trunk about the early stages of love into Starting Here, Starting Now, and then, a little more than a decade later, they assembled a song cycle on a generation growing up, growing older, but still puzzled by the complexities of relationships.
The show never required much in the way of scenery, but the opening number, “Doors,” gave director Jonathan Van Dyke the notion of employing a series of mobile portals. Ideal for onstage exits and entrances, they also can form a handy surface for the occasional backdrop projection.
Closer Than Ever requires a quartet of big-voiced singing actors, and Van Dyke found them among the veterans of MNM productions past. Each of them gets a juicy solo or two, and they blend well on group numbers. Early on, Aaron Bower sets the bar high with her rendition of “The Bear, The Tiger, The Hamster and The Mole,” as a biology lecturer spinning arcane facts of animal husbandry. With a sly, dry comic delivery, Shelley Keelor sings of “Miss Byrd,” a seemingly mousy real estate agent who lives out her steamy fantasies on her lunch break.
Elijah Word scores with a wistful memory playlet, “One of the Good Guys,” about a faithful husband’s look back on what might have been. And I defy you not to reach for a Kleenex as Johnbarry Green performs “If I Sing,” about a son recalling the aging father who lives on in him.
As originally arranged by Maltby, an accomplished director as well as a lyricist, Closer Than Ever has a clear dramatic arc, moving from lighter numbers in the first act to more serious material – and even intimations of mortality – in the second half of the show. Fortunately, it ends with a welcome note of optimism in the four-part finale, the title tune.
Throughout the production, Van Dyke and his trio of cameramen frame the numbers skillfully. If he occasionally gives in to gimmickry, he also understands how effective a stationary close-up can be, putting the emphasis on the performer and the lyrics.
While no streamed show can truly take the place of a live production, MNM’s Closer Than Ever comes awfully close. As we wait for theaters to open up again, perhaps this West Palm Beach troupe will come up with other distanced programming and other companies may follow their lead.