Thursday, June 21, 2012

Closer than Ever, York Theater

My first piece (here) on Huffington Post's Culture channel is a slightly edited version of the following:

I'm not as much of a theater-goer as I'd like to think I am, but when I do make it there, I'm a dream audience member. I fall prey to movie magic, theater magic, music magic, and any other filter put before me that's meant to bend my reality for a spell. Last night a dear friend took me to see the musical revival Closer than Ever at the York Theater at Saint Peter's Church on the Upper East Side. Walk four stories below ground level and there it is, a little jewel box of an old-school off-Broadway New York Theater, that has played host to musicals since the company first opened its doors in 1969. The York Theater Company's founder, Janet Hayes Walker, was also a Broadway star who took a turn in musicals like Damn Yankees and The Music Man before founding her company with a $50 gift from the church rector.

Closer than Ever was written in the late 1980s by the musical team Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire, and had its debut downtown in 1989, where it stuck out 312 shows at the Cherry Lane Theater. It's a musical with no dialogue to speak of. Rather, two men and two women sing about love, loss, friendship, exercise (?!), and more, against the musical backdrop of one piano and one stand up bass, whose player also takes one star turn mid-way through the play.

The lyrics in some ways were irreparably dated (back to that exercise number... we're treated to some old Jane Fonda aerobics moves), and the director made some funny choices to update the show. Stick cell phones in their hands for a couple of numbers, and have them rudely text at a restaurant during a first date. Or, stick a Starbucks cup in a guy's hand as he races out of his apartment to head off to work for the day. Not to be picky, but shouldn't that have been a portable thermos? Who leaves their apartment with a paper Starbucks cup?

The players (Jenn Colella, George Dvorsky, Christianne Knoll, and Sal Viviano) were phenomenally strong, literally, both in voice and stamina. Two and a half hours of belting out about everything from infidelity to unrequited love to sharing baby duties to divorce and back again, all without, to my untrained eye, missing a single beat. There was also strong chemistry between the back and forth couples, which is a good thing,  because we were about three feet away from a few wet smackeroos that could have been a disaster. The  audience seemed to hoot and holler it up the most for the "Miss Byrd" number about a saucy office gal who's quiet on the outside but secretly seducing some Super in a Spanish Harlem basement. She was alternately overly perky one second, and convincingly coy the next, all while sharing her story from the seat of a rolling office chair. The same actress took a couple of turns throughout the show with scatting, and that got under my skin and broke voice from the rest of the show. Boo ba doo, etc., etc. Eh. That pet peeve is my problem,  not hers.

The musical is obviously set in New York, thanks to that one specific Spanish Harlem reference, but one can also presume as much from the lyrics about lease propriety following break ups and the closeness of neighbors. Yet, the urban themes of too close for comfort and manic work/ life balance will resonate for everyone from sea to shining sea.

The theater itself seems to be endowed with a brave mission. To nurture the modern musical, and remain a home for revivals... a lofty ambition, n'est pas? I was a kid who happily spent hours in front of Singing in the Rain, Gigi, and The Sound of Music, all squashed in between every Cary Grant or Errol Flynn film I could lay my eyes on, but I might have been unusual in that regard. Point being, even I don't generally choose to find and attend musicals... and I should. If we don't actively seek out these shows once in a while, the subscriber base will expire and so will these theater companies. It's not unlike putting your money where your mouth is and emptying your pockets at your local bookstore rather than on Amazon. It was refreshing to see more than a few younger faces in the aisles, even though we had the pleasure of sitting in front of two quite elegant old-timers who were clearly regulars (both perfectly coiffed with only minor-feathering lipstick, and one in a turban!). Every time a number would near its end, we'd hear an enthusiastic stage whisper rise from behind us, "That was marvelous!" or "That was a wonderful song!" God bless 'em.

I look forward to actively catching more musicals in the next year. I hope to see more of my friend David Clement's up and coming show about the Weathermen, which I saw performed in small bits at the Public Theater a year or so ago. I also consider myself quite lucky to have caught one of the last performances of Once before it left the New York Theater Workshop on East 4th Street to head off to its new Broadway home, a setting I've heard is too large for the intimate show (but watch it nab Tony after Tony this weekend; my money's on Once).

Closer than Ever is on show through July 5th at the York Theater.

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