THE SHOW EARNS RAVES BUT YORK THEATER PRODUCING DIRECTOR JIM MORGAN STILL HAS A BONE TO PICK
BY HENRY EDWARDS
In May 2011, the York Theatre Company launched a concert season devoted to revivals of Off-Broadway musicals. The opening attraction, Nancy Ford and Gretchen Cryer's 1978 success, “I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road” (ostensably the first feminist musical) was followed by the world premiere of the sequel, “Still Getting My Act Together.”
Concert versions of “The Mad Show,” “Oh Coward!,” “The Housewives’ Cantata,” “Tomfoolery,” five concerts of musicals by Tom Jones, and a full production of “Ionescopade” came next.
And now to bring the one-of-a-kind retrospective to a close, the York has mounted a new edition of lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. and composer David Shire’s fondly recalled revue,“Closer Than Ever.”
The 1980 hit has not been seen in New York since then, and the critical response indicates it has been sorely missed.
Foe example, Eric Grode in New York Times characterized the show as “charming material presented charmingly and sometimes marvelously.”
“Delightful,” “polished” and “expertly done” are just some of the other superlatives critics have utilized to characterize York's revival.
Then and now the show features four actor-singers who perform an assortment of Maltby-and-Shire theater songs, mostly composed in the 1980s.
Jenn Colella, George Dvorsky, Christiane Noll and Sal Viviano comprise the current, very talented cast.
Maltby, who co-directed the original version, helms on his own this time around.
A-typical songwriters, Malty and Shire created a songbook with middle-class, if not middle-aged, appeal. Aging, mid-life crisis, second marriages, two-career couples and an inability to commit number are some of the subjects they chose to transform into songs.
“Mostly, the songs come from people — people we knew or things we observed about ourselves or stories that people told us about other people. They told me stories no fiction writer could invent. The only reason they could possibly exist is that they would be true. People have complex lives that we can't imagine," Maltby has explained.
Those efforts have been characterized as a “mixture of wit and wistfulness,” “bittersweet” and “urbane and epigrammatic.”
"I guess I've come to realize, over a time, that David and I write things that are just not like what other people write. I place no value judgment on that. We just have a different voice," says Malby.
Critical response aside, although he cast sings wonderfully, the songs are marvels of craft and the piano and bass arrangements, although mimimal were also sufficient, from the point of view of this column, "Closer Than Ever," seems a bit too long and too mild to hoild one's undivided attention. Harking back to its original cabaret roots, the show would go down better if one had a drink in one's hand.
Nevertheless, it's an evening riddled with historical significance, and the York is to be commended for mounting it.
In an “Up Front” column in the current theater program, producing artistic director Jim Morgan discusses his theater's Off-Broadway revival series, writing: "Almost 150 performances of Off-Broadway treasures, and oddly, no real notice was taken of this endeavor by any of the various organizations whose job it is to celebrate Off-Broadway, or the writers and publications who cover the Off-Broadway beat."
Morgan's point is well taken.
When people think of the Off-Broadway musical, the shows that pop to mind usually are those made the move to Broadway (“Hair,” “Godspell,” “A Chorus Line,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Rent, to name a few).
But what of the Off-Broadway musical that remains Off-Broadway? These shows are their own special breed, tending to be more experimental and far less spectacular. And for the most part, although they are a genuine subset of the American musical theater, they are ignored.
In “Off-Broadway Musicals since 1919,” perhaps the only reference book about the Off-Broadway musical, one of the very few studies of these works, Thomas Hischak surveys a staggering 375 musical shows through 2009.
Hishak observes the off-Broadway musical offers "a more direct kind of music, dance, and comedy" than Broadway shows and often display a more direct connection to the times through music in a more intimate forum.
Where are the musical theater historians? one is left to wonder. And why haven't they written about the York's efforts in this arena?
Morgan and the York Theatre Company deserve to be encouraged to do another round of these fascinating shows that seemingly have disappeared yet have earned the right to be resurrected.
“Closer Than Ever” at York Theatre at St. Peter’s is scheduled to run through July 14 (yorktheatre.org).