I’m putting this right out in front: every now and then, I take in a hearty, worthwhile show for which I’m completely outside the target demographic. Such is the case with Bristol Riverside Theater’s excellently produced and cleanly presented “Closer than Ever,” playing through May 23.
“Closer Than Ever” is a two-act musical revue with lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and music by David Shire (these gentlemen are also two of the three creators of “Take Flight,” now playing right across the Delaware from BRT at McCarter Theater). In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, the show enjoyed a 312-performance run at Off-Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theater. Billed as a 20th anniversary production, BRT’s staging is directed by Maltby, and contains two of the original cast members, Sally Mayes and Lynne Wintersteller. Joined by George Dvorsky and Sal Viviano, the production serves as a curious, engaging time capsule, a celebration of a show taken whole-cloth from the era of its original presentation and displayed, for our enjoyment, a little closer to home.
The evening of 26 songs is loosely tied together as a collection of short stories about the nature of love, connection, parenthood, and living in an urban setting. Each song serves as its own little world, as we spend five minutes or so on each perspective. We get a glimpse of a secretary with a saucy, voracious appetite on the flipside of her straight-laced life (Mayes in the excellent “Miss Byrd”), the acrobatics of child-rearing when both parents happen to be high-power urban professionals (Viviano and Wintersteller in a moment that’s both poignant and frantically funny), and the changes in the parent-child dynamic that happen with age (Dvorsky and Viviano). It runs the gamut of American life when one is a 40-something and everything is changing, from definitions of success to the needs of relationships to the definitions of being a “good guy” and the temptations that get in the way of that definition.
The curious element of the piece is that, as I mentioned, it’s frozen in time. From the costumes on down, it’s made very clear that we’re experiencing an examination of these changes and growing pains at the end of the ‘80s — what it means to be entering middle age at the end of the Reagan era, and the particular challenges that come with it. A little bit of grit and disharmony occurs when one takes into account some of the unavoidable elements of the passages of time — the actors are all slightly out of the age ranges of these parts, which was honestly far less of an issue than I expected. That I barely noticed it is a testament to the talents of this quartet; once the audience has a little time to get into the evening, the issue disappears. I don’t quite understand, however, why a reference to Glenn Beck was added — aside from the mild chuckle it evinced, it briefly broke the spell of the evening by pulling us out of the period.
In consideration of all of the above, the show is worth attending for the performances alone. Viviano and Dvorsky are strong, capable, versatile, and enjoyable, but this production stands firmly on the strengths of its women. Sally Mayes is a Broadway legend, with equal parts Mae West moxie and approachable, beguiling playfulness. Lynne Wintersteller presents a generally more serious energy and grounded strength with a quick wit and laser-beam focus. We got a little bit of an extra treat on opening night when her microphone malfunctioned, and she discarded the swiftly-produced hand-microphone to finish act one with her warm, natural, unamplified voice. Sometimes, it’s amazing how the little bumps of live theater produce surprising discoveries like this.
Despite the fact that I’m an occasionally cynical, childless 28-year-old, still ostensibly at the start of a life in “the real world” and looking ahead to all of the adventures contained within “Closer Than Ever,” I get its appeal and that it’s both an affecting show and a fascinating time capsule of the way musical theater worked 20 years ago; for those who spent the early 1990s leaving their 30s and entering their 40s, “Closer Than Ever” will provide both solid bouts of welcomed nostalgia and optimistic and emotional musings on the pace of life. For theater lovers, you have an opportunity to watch a handful of musical theater giants recreate an experience in a way that doesn’t quite happen anymore. That’s precious and rare on the stage. The implacable magic of theater is that when a performance is gone, it’s gone for good, and the next night — or the next show — will never be quite the same. From either perspective, it’s an evening worthy of your attention.
“Closer Than Ever,” Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. Through Sunday, May 23. Musical by David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr. about love, security, and happiness. $34 to $42. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.