Review: ‘Closer Than Ever,’ smart as always

 In Mazeppa Productions' 'Closer Than Ever,' from left: Will Connell, Deirdre Finnegan, Erica Scanlon Harr and Paul McElwee. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Anne Pipe Photography)

In Mazeppa Productions' 'Closer Than Ever,' from left: Will Connell, Deirdre Finnegan, Erica Scanlon Harr and Paul McElwee. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Anne Pipe Photography)

The angst of American middle-age – when many of us question the paths we’ve taken and the ones we’re moving toward – has never been as tuneful as in the show “Closer Than Ever.” The smart, sophisticated musical revue opened Off-Broadway 25 years ago, when we had yet to know the real power of a pixel and only the birds sent a tweet. But “Closer Than Ever” is as current today as it was then, and the proof is in the theater atop Christ Church Neighborhood House, where Mazeppa Productions is staging the show in top form.

I’m not sure that setting this four-singer show inside a café (a handsome design by Adam Koch) realizes Mazeppa’s goal of presenting theater in new and innovative ways but frankly, nothing about the show needs a theatrical update. It consists of 24 songs – a dozen in each act – that reflect the cycles running through most (and maybe all) of our lives: staying in love or not, parenting, parenting your parents, figuring out what the right thing is and doing it, doing the wrong thing and paying for it.

The songs are vignettes – lots of quickly told stories packed into an evening. They’re sung with passion and clarity by Will Connell (a beautiful rendition from a family man who can’t forget the woman he met on a business trip), Deirdre Finnegan (who sings as a woman with no complaints yet more than a tinge of regret), Erica Scanlon Harr (Miss Byrd, efficient and proper at work and a devil outside of it) and Paul McElwee (stuck to his workaday routine and dreading its repetition).

The four performers are impressively accompanied by pianist Zachary Wisely and Andrew Nelson on bass. One of the show’s finest numbers has Nelson playing jazz bass to a song called “Back on Base” while Erica Scanlon Harr vamps about getting herself back on base.

We have the power couple trying to figure out who can take the baby for an afternoon in the absence of a nanny, and the divorcees who now date and hate it. (“Churning out the small talk with someone who is all talk.”) One character later sings that “the visions seep in my head of the life I could have led.” Why, sings Deirdre Finnegan, “are patterns haunting every move I make?”

If this appears to come down on the side of dreariness, it doesn’t. In the delivery of the the four players, and with thoughtful staging from Mazeppa artistic director Rob Henry, these ultimately come across as songs about connection and new experiences. The music is by David Shire (“Baby,” the film “Saturday Night Fever”) and Richard Maltby Jr. (“Baby,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Miss Saigon”).

Five years ago, Maltby himself directed “Closer Than Ever” at Bristol Riverside Theatre, and until Act 2 at the Mazeppa production the other night, I couldn’t remember ever having seen it. What jolted my memory came almost at the end – a clever song (as are they all) about the march of time. The march of time may have covered over my memory of the show, but the Mazeppa production has reacquainted me happily with it.

 

“Closer Than Ever,” from Mazeppa Productions, runs through July 25 at the theater in Christ Church Neighborhood House, at 20 North American St. (off 2nd Street, between Market and Arch Streets). 267-669-9602 or at mazeppa.org.

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