Director Jovanni Sy and talented cast make the most out of Closer Than Ever

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      Lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. Music by David Shire. Directed by Jovanni Sy. A Gateway Theatre production. At the Gateway Theatre on Friday, February 5. Continues until February 20

      I must have said this a thousand times: there’s so much talent on-stage; if only the material were better.

      Closer Than Ever is kind of a wannabe Company. Both are musical entertainments about modern urban life. Company (1970) is a concept musical with associative storytelling while Closer Than Ever (1989) is a pure revue, a compilation of songs. But the more important distinction is that the songs that Stephen Sondheim wrote for Company are virtuosic and consistently surprising, but only a few of the tunes in Closer Than Ever—lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and music by David Shire—work.

      In “Miss Byrd”, a secretary whom everyone overlooks reveals her torrid, secret sex life. There’s a cheeky dynamic in which Miss Byrd tamps herself down, then, increasingly, lets it rip, until—in this production, at least—she’s gyrating on the top of her desk with full stripper moves. And “Life Story”, in which a woman remembers the liberated decisions that left her lonely in later life, floats the haunting refrain, “I’m not complaining.”

      Too often, though, the songs are forgettable. The content in “Doors”, “Patterns”, and “Closer Than Ever” all sounds like it comes out of a not very sophisticated self-help book: we’re often afraid of opportunities, and we get stuck in ruts, but, if we’re lucky, things work out. It’s generic.

      But, man, this cast is talented—and two of the featured performers I’ve never seen before. Kevin Aichele has such a big, lyrical, Broadway voice that you kind of want to hear him sing “Oklahoma!”. And Ma-Anne Dionisio is a tiny, powerhouse soprano who shapes her songs beautifully. Chris D King’s voice isn’t as flashy, but he is more than up to this musically tricky material. And Caitriona Murphy brings a winning combination of strong singing and fearless acting. She’s the one who rocks it out in “Miss Byrd”.

      Marshall McMahen’s vast set looks like a barely furnished lounge at the top of a skyscraper: there’s a certain elegance to it, but it’s also chilly. Perhaps in an attempt to compensate, Jeff Harrison’s lighting is busy. Dawn Ewen’s choreography is fun, though—especially in the vaudevillian “Three Friends”.

      Under Jovanni Sy’s direction, this production is as slick as can be. Nobody puts a foot out of place, and everybody mines the material for all it's worth. It’s the worth that’s in question.