REVIEW: "Closer Than Ever" — MNM Theatre Company, West Palm Beach

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

"A Sprightly, Scattered Look at Modern Times, It's Foibles and Heartbreaks"


DECEMBER 1, 2020—MNM Theatre Company presents “Closer Than Ever” —a one of a kind, musical theatre-film hybrid version of Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire's Award-Winning musical revue, streaming On Demand from November 27th through December 31st.


Ah, the joys of relationships for people of a certain age. Divorce, a return to dating, working out to keep gravity at bay, the prospect of spending the final years alone.

If this doesn’t sound like the stuff of musicals, then you’ve probably never seen one by Stephen Sondheim other than “Sweeney Todd.” And you’ve definitely not heard yet the four singers of the MNM Theatre Company, “Closer than Ever,” a quartet who can sing the proverbial phonebook. (Do they still make phonebooks?)


The production, staged and directed by Jonathan Van Dyke, stars Aaron Bower, Johnbarry Green, Shelley Keelor, and Elijah Word. Under Van Dyke’s direction, these weighty role-players unearth the fibrous and confusing landscape of modern relationships as they sort out their feelings in lyric and verse, warily reaching out to make a connection.


Marriage, dating, parenthood, sex. Each song is a short story in Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire’s winner of the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical. It opened in November 1989 after taking shape over the summer of that year at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts.


Lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. (“Miss Saigon,” “Fosse,” “Ring of Fire”) and composer David Shire (film scores include “The Conversation,” “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” “All The President's Men,” and parts of “Saturday Night Fever”), began working together as students at Yale University. Their shared credits include ”Baby” (1983), “Big” (1996) and “Take Flight” (2007). Maltby conceived and directed the only two musical revues to win the Tony Award for Best Musical: “Ain't Misbehavin'” (1978) and “Fosse” (1999). Shire won the Oscar for the theme song to Norma Rae, "It Goes Like It Goes," and was the pianist in the original productions of both “The Fantasticks” and “Funny Girl.”


Here, Maltby and Shire’s revue of songs offers a symptomatic gallery of contemporary people struggling with the usual dilemmas. Actually, there is more genuine drama in each Maltby and Shire song than in most of the portentous spectacles that are now born as Broadway musicals, and “Closer Than Ever” is an exhilarating reaffirmation that the American musical isn’t dead yet. The show is about people moving on, doors opening before you, and also doors closing behind you.


They're all here: men who can't commit to women, women who wish they could do without men, two-career couples who are too busy to stay home with the baby when the au pair gets sick. After spending an evening with them, however, they immediately fade, like faces we've encountered at a cocktail party and can only dimly remember the next day.

Largely based on true stories, and intertwined with insightful tales about love, security, happiness, and self-definition in an ever-changing world, universal truths are uncovered through charming melodies and smartly-crafted lyrics. It’s polished, witty, tuneful and many of the songs seem more like one-act plays, dealing with regret, anxiety and disappointment, both in love and career—and the persistent knowledge that, when you hit your 40s, half the sand of your life is at the bottom of the hourglass. Indeed, when the cast, in tandem, sings "I Wouldn't Go Back" at the close of the first act—an acknowledgment that the past, good and bad, has shaped one's present irrevocably—it seems almost impossible not to nod one's head in agreement, if not just sing along.

None of the songs have narrative links to each other (aside from the few coupled as medleys), but are united around themes of self-discovery, unraveling relationships, middle age and urban living. They are always performed by a cast of two men and two women, though the pianist and bassist both have moments to prove themselves as more than mere accompanists. With its numbers veering from the sharply dramatic to the slyly comic, the show requires a highly expressive quartet of performers with enormous versatility and crystalline voices. Fortunately, this group delivers admirably.


Mr. Shire's melodies range from the cool jazz of ''Back on Base'' (which might have been borrowed from Jerome Robbins's ''Mr. Monotony'') to the jittery, Sondheimesque opening number, ''Doors.'' In its exhortation to bravely face life's scariest minefields, ''Doors'' recalls Mr. Sondheim's more richly worded ''Into the Woods.''


Another example is "If I Sing," which keynotes a man's tribute to his father's musical legacy, contrasting zestfully with the waggish, "I'll Get Up Tomorrow Morning." And the lyrics in "Miss Byrd" is a unique mix of sass, grit, and sex appeal, exemplifying a mousy, wide-eyed real estate broker who reveals her inner fire.

Two more: There’s a heartbreaking take on "Patterns,” about a woman stuck in a literal and figurative rut, and the musings of a feisty middle-aged liberated woman in "Life Story," wondering if she should have stayed married. But each song is a little gem. With over a score in the song anthology, the show manages to cover a full range of emotions and every conceivable situation.


“Closer Than Ever” is Produced by Marcie Gorman, Directed by Jonathan Van Dyke, and stars Aaron Bower (Domina in ”Forum,” Dorothy Brock in ”42nd St,” Irene in ”Crazy For You,” Sarah Brown in ”Guys and Dolls,” Muriel in ”Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and M’Lynn in ”Steel Magnolias”), Johnbarry Green (Caleb in “The Spitfire Grill” with Palm Beach Dramaworks, Bob in “Pricilla, Queen of the Desert” with Slowburn and Pseudolus in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”), and Carbonell Award-winners Shelley Keelor (“And the World Goes ‘Round,” Gladys/”Memphis,” Marion/”Priscilla,” Beggar Woman in ”Sweeney Todd,” Margaret White in ”Carrie,” and more. She was last seen as Karla in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City”), and Elijah Word (Jimmy Early in “DreamGirls” at Stage Door Theatre Company; “Hair” and “La Cage Aux Folles” with MNM Theatre Company).


The technical crew, almost all of whom are also MNM alumni, includes Eric Alsford as the production’s Musical Director/Pianist with Martha Spangler, Bass, and Emily Tarallo as the show’s Choreographer. Projections and Lighting Design is Clifford Michael Spulock, Sound Designer is Mike Kelly, Scenic Artist is Cindi Taylor, and Scenic Designer is Jordon Armstrong. Johnbarry Green serves as Technical Director, Managing Director is Jordon Armstrong, Company Manager is Amber Mandic. Cliff Burgess is Editor, Chroma Key Effects, Videographer and Director of Photography; Photographer is Amy Pasquantonio. Michael Joseph and Jordon Armstrong are Assistant Videographers and Wig Design is by Justin Lore of Tease & Floof Custom Wig Boutique. Amber Mandic and Andrea Guardo are the production’s co-Stage Managers and co-Props Mistresses.


In this production, doors serve as a metaphor. And doors seemingly float on their own, in and out of the performers’ pathways. This might reinforce the notion that in everyday life, our “doors” are unpredictable. For instance, we never know when an opportunity will present itself, or when a stumbling block will deal us a setback.


Picture this: Through the wonders of technology, Director Jonathan Van Dyke positions his actors seemingly one above or below each other. They do appear safely distanced, standing on either side of a square. But there doesn’t appear to be any ground upon which they are standing. And they are looking inside the square at themselves – mask-less, and standing close enough to hold hands. To Van Dyke’s credit, the image clearly symbolizes the time in which we are living.

"Knowing what we are facing in live performance logistically and what would resonate artistically, for me the choice was Maltby & Shire's ‘Closer Than Ever,’" says Jonathan Van Dyke. "The title alone says so much of where we are. While unable to be close physically, in our hearts and minds we are Closer Than Ever.”


Filmed simultaneously by three cameras overseen by Director of Photography Cliff Burgess, with parts of some numbers captured in front of green screens at one point, solos were shot one day, group numbers another, with performers across the stage from each other or separated by different levels. Blank doors were rolled around the stage to create different scenes and crucially doubled as screens upon which projections of other actors were displayed.


In some cases, “live” performers are singing duets with themselves – earlier footage projected on a door screen next to them. Sometimes when a scene needs to be an intimate duet, one live actor sings to his scene partner mouthing mutely in a projection on the door screen, but the performer playing that partner is offstage singing live to their colleague as the number is being formally filmed. All very similar to reverse lipsyncing. The entire process has been an experiment of discovery for everyone because no one involved has done anything exactly like this before.


The geniuses behind this unique, innovative way to provide audiences with theatre during these difficult times is Producing Artistic Director/CEO Marcie Gorman and Director Jonathan Van Dyke, employing integrated projections to offset the challenges that live theatre currently has to contend with due to the pandemic. All members of the cast and crew observed COVID protocols, by the way, and remained as isolated as possible unless rehearsing or performing.


The staging was set with the actors at least 6 feet between them, but the integrated projection allowed for their projected images to appear close. The actors were green screened separately and then post-edited together in perspective. All the singing was performed live during the filming or in coordination with the actors’ projected images. The screens were designed as moving doors; on one side they appear as part of the set and then they spin to become a projection screen. The doors were moved by a crew in masks and gloves.


For performers accustomed to delivering several shows a week for a few hours, the discipline and stamina here was different. Sometimes you had to do a number five or six times because they wanted to get one more angle. Under the direction of Jonathan Van Dyke, the production intermixes live performances, film techniques, scenic projections, deft editing, superimposed images of earlier performances and, of course, keeping everyone six feet away from each other — having only moments before doffing the masks they wore throughout rehearsals.


And equivalently, audiences watching MNM’s production of “Closer Than Ever” will be together only in spirit, as the West Palm Beach-based company presents a virtual production which is now available On Demand through Dec. 31st on Music Theatre International's (MTI) streaming platform: www.ShowTix4U.com, via MNM Theatre Company's website: www.mnmtheatre.org, or on the company's Facebook page: www.facebook.com/mnmtheatrecompany. Once tickets are purchased, patrons will receive a link to view the production. The link will be active for 48 hours from the first click. Tickets are $20.


Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report

 © 2020 by KDaniels 

Chris Daniels, Arts Reviewer

The Show Report