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Brilliance, Guaranteed

The musical revue Closer Than Ever is a well-written and performed reflection on the human condition

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If you're not familiar with the brilliant writing team of Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire, now is a perfect time to get acquainted.  Arizona Onstage Productions is presenting one of the pair's musical revues, Closer Than Ever. And because the production is a very good one, chances are that you'll be inspired beyond mere acquaintance and become enthusiastic fans. 

The revue is bulging with witty and wise numbers about people and situations in all of their complexity and silliness. While some songs are spirited and others are quiet and reflective, all are intelligent and speak smartly of our challenging, constrained and confusing lives. The wordplay is often fever-pitched, in a knowing way, and the music drives the lyrics with power when the words charge into our attention, and with a light and sensitive touch when the words are meant to sink into our hearts.

Creative partners since their days at Yale, Maltby and Shire began searching for their place in the musical theater world when they moved to New York in the 1960s. Each has also worked independently. Maltby conceived and directed Ain't Misbehavin' and was part of the creative team of the wildly successful Miss Saigon, while Shire moved across the country and composed scores for dozens of movies. They did collaborate for the off-Broadway musical revue Starting Here, Staring Now in 1977, a show that Tucson audiences went gaga for when Arizona Theatre Company produced it in the summer of 1978, some fans returning three or four times. Maltby and Shire had a modest Broadway success with the musical Baby in the early '80s.

As with Starting Here, Starting Now, many of the songs featured in Closer Than Ever were cut from shows the team had worked on. But here they have added songs that were inspired by the actual stories and lives of friends, which Maltby had collected over the years and kept in what he called "the urban file." After some development in a couple of theaters, Closer Than Ever opened in 1989 and has been given numerous productions in the years since.

AOS artistic director and founder Kevin Johnson directs with great respect for the material and, fortified with outstanding musical direction from Elliot Jones, he has guided an experienced cast to deliver a diverse collection of what are actually musical monologues, peppered with ensemble numbers that help give the evening a sense of momentum. There is no single story; there is no spoken dialogue.  If Sweeney Todd is a novel, Closer Than Ever is a collection of short stories. The lyrics of each song create a world, a character or a romp, and it is up to the actor/singers to interpret it all for us. 

They do a highly respectable job. Maltby and Shire were middle-aged when the show was developed, so the themes, people and issues the musical collection deals with are reflections of mature lives. Many of the songs are very funny; many are intimate and wistful.

The ensemble consists of two women, Amy Erbe and Liz Cracchiolo, and two men, Brian Levario and Kit Runge.  Each is given a chance to shine individually, and is also called on to contribute in a collective way. With such a variety of characters and situations, this is a huge task, and at times there seems to be a lack of cohesion within the whole. My guess is that this will develop as the show continues its run and the actors can settle in together, becoming more comfortable courting new audiences. For the revue to generate its greatest impact, this cohesion is absolutely necessary—not a stagy representation of being connected, but a genuine intimacy between themselves which they then dare to risk when they welcome us. Creating a relationship with the audience is what gives this sort of a revue its emotional power.

Erbe and Cracchiolo represent two very different styles, and they complement each other well. Cracchiolo has a much looser and more outgoing approach, as demonstrated in "Miss Byrd", about a dull secretary, from all appearances, who actually enjoys a rather racy life.  And in "You Wanna Be My Friend?", angry and venting in response to a lover who advocates a transition in their relationship, Cracchiolo lets loose with an infectious playfulness. But she can reach deep as well, as in "I've Been Here Before," in which she partners with Erbe in a double-barreled song about the impossibility of romantic love. 

Erbe brings a quiet, more contained intensity to her songs, although she certainly can recognize humor.  In "The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster and the Mole," she sings of how, in the animal world, the male of the species is really only necessary for one thing, and for a mollusk, the guys are not needed at all. She switches gears in her version of the amazing "Life Story," in which every word rings true.

Levario and Runge also represent complementary presences. The younger Levario offers an earnestness and sweetness in "Fathers of Fathers," a sense of both fun and regret in "One of the Good Guys," and a winning dance in high heels as one of the girls in "Three Friends." Runge's beautiful baritone blends fittingly with Cracchiolo's voice in "Another Wedding Song" and he sings of a father's legacy in a poignant "If I Sing."

Johnson keeps the production simple, with a minimum of props and staging. What matters here are the songs, the characters and their stories. Music director and pianist Jones has ensured a tight blend of voices in the group numbers, and is assisted by capable bassist Dylan DeRobertis.  Unfortunately, the set and lighting don't live up to the quality of the show's other elements.

In an effort to encourage attendance to a show without a big-name brand, Johnson has said he will refund the ticket price if you're not satisfied.  My bet is that you'll buy another ticket on your way out.

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