CLOSER THAN EVER (Mazeppa): A charming musical exposé of mid-life angst

Will Connell, Deirdre Finnegan, Erica Scanlon Harr, and Paul McElwee in Mazeppa’s CLOSER THAN EVER (Photo credit: Kelly Anne Pipe Design and Photography)

Will Connell, Deirdre Finnegan, Erica Scanlon Harr, and Paul McElwee in Mazeppa’s CLOSER THAN EVER (Photo credit: Kelly Anne Pipe Design and Photography)

All songs and no dialogue is the format Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyrics) and David Shire (score) employ for CLOSER THAN EVER, their popular two-act musical revue that debuted in 1989 and is now enjoying a top-notch staging by Mazeppa Productions. Described by the authors as a “bookless book musical,” the show is based on the real-life experiences and relationships of 30- and 40-something baby-boomers who are no longer babies. They are couples. And singles. And singles who used to be couples. And singles who want to be couples. And couples who want to be single. And individuals experiencing a mid-life crisis, who worry about aging and security and work and weight and relationships. Especially relationships!

Each of the two dozen fast-paced songs, filled with clever rhymes and witty word-plays, is a well-structured stand-alone musical vignette. There is no narrative plot to advance, just a running awareness on the part of the ever-changing personages of “The March of Time” (one of the show’s universally relatable tunes) and the angst of being past the prime of youth and still feeling uncertain about life and self. And relationships!

For a show like this to be effective, the cast must be equally adept at melodious singing with speed and precision, and conveying the variety of personalities and emotions required by the songs. They are and they do. Performed by a winning four-person cast (Will Connell, Deirdre Finnegan, Erica Scanlon Harr, and Paul McElwee) with solid musical accompaniment (sound designer Andrew Nelson on bass and Zachary Wisely, who also serves as musical director, on piano), the ensemble delivers the personal revelations of a host of characters with humor and heart. They show mock anger and frustration, real insight and poignancy, and a whole lot of charm in a mix of introspective solos, heated duets, and hilarious trios. Depending on the mood, their voices are quiet (Connell and McElwee are convincingly sensitive) or strong (Finnegan and Harr are true powerhouses), and their four-part harmonies are consistently flawless.

Paul McElwee and Erica Scanlon Harr in Mazeppa’s CLOSER THAN EVER (Photo credit: Kelly Anne Pipe Design and Photography)

Paul McElwee and Erica Scanlon Harr in Mazeppa’s CLOSER THAN EVER (Photo credit: Kelly Anne Pipe Design and Photography)

Mazeppa’s original scenic design (Adam Koch), which forgoes the show’s standard bare stage and metaphorical “Doors” (a visualization of the opening number and the concept of never knowing what will be on the other side of the one we choose), allows for increased visual excitement in the blocking (by director Rob Henry) and choreography (by Dawn Morningstar). Here set in a warm boho café, covered with colorful Oriental carpets and hung with pendant lights, wooden-slat blinds, and strips of fabric and mirrors, the actors move from chair to chair, table to table, up and down the steps, on to the coffee bar and stools, and in and out of the intimate multi-level space. Illuminated by Alyssandra Docherty’s beautiful lighting, it is a place where the characters feel comfortable coming and going, searching and baring their souls.

Notwithstanding the middle-aged characters (costumed in age-appropriate clothing by Stephen Smith), these musical stories of life and humanity (and relationships!) are relevant for all ages of adults, though it is likely that audiences in their 20s will see a completely different show than those in their 40s or 60s. That’s the beauty of living, changing, seeing, growing, and getting “closer than ever.” [Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American Street] July 8-25, 2015; mazeppaproductions.org.

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About the author

Debra Miller

Debra holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware and teaches at Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ. She is a judge for the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent for Central Voice, and has served as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and President of the Board of Directors of Da Vinci Art Alliance. Her publications include articles, books, and catalogues on Renaissance, Baroque, American, Pre-Columbian, and Contemporary Art, and feature articles on the Philadelphia theater scene.