All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The proof that David Shire writes catchy tunes is my total inability, or desire, to get several of them out of my head since I heard them almost a week ago in Rob Henry’s amiable mounting of “Closer Than Ever” for Mazeppa Productions.
As I write, the words “Miss Byrd is singing” are swirling through my brain as a welcome earworm. At various other parts of the day, I hummed, sang, or carried ‘Next Time Now,” “Doors,” “She Loves Me Not,” or “One of the Good Guys.” And that’s only when I wasn’t belting full-out versions of “If I Sing” (which I tend to call “My Father’s Pride”) or “Patterns,” which may have been originally written for Shire’s musical, “Baby,” because as I sing it, I hear the voice of Beth Fowler, who starred in that show but never did “Closer Than Ever,”
The origin of “Patterns” doesn’t matter as much as its beauty and completeness as a song. In “Closer Than Ever,” as in his previous revue, “Starting Here, Starting Now,” Shire, with his equally estimable partner, Richard Maltby, Jr., composed a series of songs that cannot almost be a collection of three-minute one-act plays. Even though “Closer Than Ever” was written in 1989, the stories its songs tell show no sign of dating. They refer to human situations that span time and affect every generation. Even pieces that seem rooted in the ’80, such as one in which a pair of high-powered executives argue over who should miss work on a given day to take care of their baby, or the anthem-like “Life Story,” in which a woman chronicles the way she shattered several glass ceilings, have currency in the 21st century. So does a bit in which Erica Scanlon Harr, exasperated because her character has trouble dealing with weight and fitness eschews a Jane Fonda Exercise disk by declaring, “Jane’s thin, Peter’s thin, Henry was thin; those Fondas are thin!”
Maltby and Shire’s work remains contemporary because they are writers who know the world. Maltby’s lyrics are filled with perception, observation, and sophistication that capture human attitudes, foibles, and conditions. Maltby and Shire comment keenly and find the right combination of sincerity, satire, and self-awareness in songs that address looking for love, being in love, marriage, parenting, and a myriad of other topics that are a part of most people’s everyday lives.
The Mazeppa cast does well by Maltby and Shire. Though no voice stands out, every singer struggles to hit a note or two, and harmonies are not always the most felicitous, each performer presents his or her songs with earnestness and an aim to entertain. Will Connell, who has the truest of the voices, is a master at facial expression. He conveys exactly what each of his characters is thinking by the looks he’s able to muster and his posture. Deirdre Finnegan is moving as she sings about battles fought and won in “Life Story” and touching as she talks about the ups and downs her character experiences in “Patterns.” Erica Scanlon Harr, who has the most powerful and flexible voice comes in wittily as she sings “There, there” in the song, “There,” is a winningly flighty Miss Byrd, the mousy real estate assistant who has a wild life at lunchtime, and is nicely rhythmic when she jams with bassist Andrew on “Back on Base.”
Ironically, the best singer in Mazeppa’s “Closer Than Ever” is Zachary Wisely, the show’s musical director and pianist. When he joins Connell and Paul McElwee in the lovely tune, “Fathers of Fathers,” you sit up, take notice, and wonder from where the elegant, on-pitch, and cleanly harmonizing voice is coming.
McElwee is the most challenged of the singers. His voice has no range or tone. Luckily, McElwee is, as he’s proven many times, an excellent actor and can often get by on his ability to establish a credible character about whom you care. His lack of musical gifts shows most in “Closer Than Ever’s” most beautiful and emotional solo, “If I Sing.” Although McElwee is actor enough to convey its sentiments, he doesn’t have the voice to demonstrate what makes the song so special. (To find out, try to locate Karen Akers’s version, an audio rendition of which, with a gender switch, can be found on YouTube.)
The cast may not exhilarate, but they do entertain, Henry’s staging plays on each piece being an independent vignette and features a lot of liveliness and byplay. The director’s intention to dramatize Maltby and Shire’s material is signaled early by the plaintive way Connell intones the lovelorn lyric of “She Loves Me” while staring wistfully at Finnegan who takes up her chorus of the song by looking lustfully at McElwee who finished the round by crooning the refrain while gazing resignedly at Connell.
Sometimes Henry gets a tad zany, as with the gyrations through which he puts the cast in ‘Three Friends,” an upbeat song about college buddies who comment on each other as they reach new stages of their lives.
All in all, the assets outweigh any criticisms. The voices may not be perfect, but they do the Maltby and Shire’s material ample justice and keep “Closer Than Ever,” a witty, enjoyable cabaret that moves quickly and affably. Each cast member, and both musicians, get moments in which they can shine, Connell in “One of the Good Guys,” Harr in “Miss Byrd,” and Finnegan in “Life Story” being especially strong.
Henry’s production is also well served by Adam Koch’s elegantly sophisticated set that appeared to be a poshly appointed bar but convincingly became many settings, a bar being just one of them. The Oriental carpets on and in front of the main playing area, and some valancing above the bar set a smart, fashionable tone that went well with both Maltby and Shire’s tunes and Henry’s staging.
A storm on opening night also contributed. As McElwee launched into the dramatic opening of a song, and just as he took a pause, a loud clap of thunder, the perfect punctuation for the mood and sentiment McElwee just expressed, was heard. When I commented on the thunder’s timing to one of Mazeppa’s crew, she quipped, “Oh, no, Neal, that was no accident. We planned that.”
All I can say is it’s grand when Mother Nature agrees to cooperate so symbiotically with a theatrical production.
“Closer Than Ever,” produced by Mazeppa Productions, runs through Saturday, July 25 at Christ Church Neighborhood House, behind Christ Church at N. 2nd and Church Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. A performance is also scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Monday, July 20. Tickets are $25 and can be obtained by calling 267-559-9602 or by visiting www.mazeppa.org.