Jim Morgan, the Producing Artistic Director of the literally underground York Theatre Company at St. Peter’s Church on Lexington Avenue, has the look of a truly contented man. His opening remarks before each performance should be recorded and incorporated into the text.
He’s been running the show since its founder, Janet Hayes Walker, decided to give New Yorkers a break by making musicals affordable and accessible, often done in “mufti”(without costumes). These musicals come in many shapes and sizes — some are merely readings, others are more like workshops (fully staged, but with limited production values), showcases where different union rules apply.
Others are fully staged and mounted productions of new musicals and/or revivals: large casts (I believe there were 17 in the York’s revival of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along) and small (there are 4 actors and two musicians in this current Richard Maltby and David Shire revue, Closer Than Ever).
I was privileged, in 1998 to be invited, along with my co-writers, to do a staged reading of Shine! with a first rate cast including Chris Fitzgerald and Zach Braff, and it was extremely helpful to us in pointing the direction we needed to go. Many other embryonic musicals have been so aided, and theatre goers and writers are indebted to this game theatre for offering its much needed support.
I say that Jim Morgan has the look of a happy guy, because he has clearly loved all of his 38 years with this company, the last 15 of which as Artistic Director.
The current offering is so useful in reminding us just what first rate writers Richard Maltby and David Shire are. Highly under publicized and underappreciated, their output may have been small compared to their immediate predecessors, but their work has always been original if not always vastly commercial.
Maltby made his fortune by conceiving and directing two major hits; Ain’t Misbehavin’ in 1979 and Fosse in 1999. Shire has composed several important film scores including “Norma Rae” and “All The President’s Men”. Together they gave the theatre Baby and Big and the revue Starting Here, Starting Now in 1977 and this sort of sequel to it in 1999.
Both reflect their views on many phases of life; i.e., love, marriage, bachelorhood, mothers, dads, conditions of the world and more. The earlier revue had the earlier viewpoint, life in the 20s,starting out. Twenty years later they had a go at mid-life, and each of the 20 plus pieces that comprise this show deals with one aspect of it.
From the opening number “Doors”, which brightly allows the two men and two women to expound on those that have and have not opened for them, those that might and those that never will. It’s a smashing opening (here enhanced by the practical use of actual doors in the simple, functional set designed by Jim Morgan, that “happy artistic director”). Maltby’s direction and Kurt Stamm’s choreography is crisp, inventive, helpful all night long.
The show was scheduled for a very limited run, but that has already been extended through most of August. George Dvorsky and Sal Viviano will remain with it but the two ladies, Christiane Noll and Jenn Colella, are off to take their chances with the Chaplin musical that has been booked for Broadway later next month. These four are symbiotic all evening long, and it’s fun to watch them project very wise and often very funny lyrics from the different viewpoints that each character has.
For this is not a book musical, so that each number is inhabited by a different character, and the actors have a wonderful time getting to go everywhere from the silly to the solemn, from the dizzily in love to the sadly heartbroken. As each song begins, we wonder where it’s going, and Maltby and Shire keep you wondering right through. “Miss Byrd” for example, introduces us to a prim and proper office worker who shows us a very different hidden side of herself.
The first act deals mostly with the light hearted aspects of growing older, the second with some of the realizations that come only in one’s own second (and third) act. The idea that a good romantic partnership can survive bad patches and emerge closer than ever is reassuring and moving and celebratory. Messrs Dvorsky and Viviano are beautiful to watch and to listen to. The ladies Colella and Noll are equally so. Attractive, confident performers all, who can play insecure and frightened people as capably as they can their opposites, they and the authors and the designers all prove for the umpteenth time that less can be, and here certainly is, more.
I for one plan to see this show again, to see how the new actresses affect the balances in the various relationships they have to deal with in this very entertaining revue.
Closer than Ever has been extended to Aug 25, 2012 at The York Theatre, 619 Lexington Avenue, NYC.
Richard Seff, who, in his career on Broadway has been a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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