Closer than Ever at International City Theatre

Theatre review

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Adam von Almen, Valerie Perri, Katheryne Penny and Kevin Bailey in International City Theatre’s Closer Than Ever

Photo by Tracey Roman

Closer Than Ever is a catchy name for your garden-variety musical, but that’s hardly what it is. Sans dialogue, identifiable characters or plot line, it may more accurately be called a revue.

This is not to say you shouldn’t see it. Just the opposite. But don’t expect Oklahoma or Madame Butterfly. The set is simple: buildings with an excess of doors, interestingly, none of which are opened. Pianist Gerald Sternbach and bass player Brad Babinski are on stage throughout. Occasionally, they are more than accompanists, with Sternbach adding his voice to a number and Babinski keeping his cool while Katheryne Penny (Woman #2) seductively dances about him in “Back on Base.”

Closer begins with all four actors in dark suits, dressed to take on the business world. Yet what they’re conveying in song belies this superficial confidence. This first number, “Doors,” is straight-up Jean Paul Sartre: People are, as the French philosopher noted, “condemned to be free.” With the daunting array of choices that humans are given, we’re forever beset with regret, remorse and longing for what we did not choose. This existential angst threads through Closer and might have been the unifying theme, save for a few numbers that, though well-written, well-acted and well-sung, should have been kept in a drawer for another Richard Maltby, Jr.-David Shire collaboration. In fact, with the sensitive and beautiful ode to dads (“Fathers of Fathers”) and the upbeat ending “Closer than Ever” edited out of the score, the entire musical could have been more aptly named Doors.

Choices, after all, are doors opening, closing or not walked through. And choices or the aftermath of them are what Closer is all about: to brag about a tryst or keep quiet, to make it on your own without an ex’s financial assistance or demand what is legally yours, to have a momentary fling or remain faithful to a spouse, to accept yet another breakup with resignation or lit into a lover from whom you want a whole bunch of things but being his “friend” isn’t one of them.

Each number is a world onto itself, and many could certainly have been the basis for their own play. A wallflower who’s keeping her orgasms under wraps in “Miss Byrd” chirps of a down-and-dirty, delicious fling with the building super, describing her aroused nipples while sliding across the stage on her swivel chair. Through her every move and wide-eyed look, actress Katheryne Penny confesses that shenanigans are not just for the young and cute: “Lots of girls who first seem shy/Have secrets, I have found…./Mrs. Smith in sales who’s turning grey/Why is she smiling that curious way?”

Unusual takes on relationships are frequent. Adam von Almen (Man #1) provides a welcome respite to society’s all-men-are-dogs cliché in “One of the Good Guys.” Almen sings to the longings of females the world over for a man who will save himself for one woman. He “trades a flash of heat” (the opportunity for a quickie during an out-of-town conference) in order to “build a warmer fire” over a lifetime with his wife. And yet he is plagued by what-ifs, the doors he won’t ever unlock.

Valerie Perri (Woman #1) is phenomenal in conveying the plight of the chronically unattached, middle-aged woman in “Life Story” and perhaps telling how the same woman spins downward into depression and mental illness in “Patterns.”

Both Perri and Kevin Bailey (Man #2) are superb in “There,” a lament on how profoundly a couple can misunderstand each other on a crucial component of intimacy—being present. It’s humorous yet saddening that he is thinking of the literal presence of his body, whereas she wants him to grasp metaphysical occupancy of a moment in time.

Closer than Ever is overflowing with insights into everything from the vacuous nature of Musak and, by association, our vapid lives to the false cheeriness and utter disappointment of dating later in life. Lyricist Maltby, Jr., and composer Shire deserve high praise for their insightful songs, and all the actors excel in their multi-dimensional roles.

It’s just that the ending number, “Closer than Ever,” has nothing to do with what precedes it. It’s a typical isn’t-everything-grand-right-here-at-home finale to a performance that otherwise explores rarely illuminated territory. It would be as if the junkies in Requiem for a Dream got sober, married and 401(k)’d in the last 30 seconds of the film. A fine ending for some other movie but not for the one the audience has been watching for the past couple hours.

International City Theatre’s Closer Than Ever continues at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center through Sunday, March 6. Performances are generally Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start at $47. Tickets may be purchased online at internationalcitytheatre.org or by calling (562) 436-4610. The Long Beach Performing Arts Center is located at 300 E. Ocean Blvd.

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