I’ve been asked several times over the last 18 months whether it’s ever been difficult to write about a show. Well, of course it has, particularly those where you find yourself in a lukewarm place. Material from either end of the spectrum is relatively easy to have an opinion on but for those pieces that sit in the centre, not so much. Then there are the shows which don’t quite fit the general mould. These can be delightfully inspiring but also cause massive (but thankfully temporary) writer’s block. If the usual terms of reference are noticeable by their absence then some new way in has to be found.
So, let’s start out by saying that Closer Than Ever is a tricky beast to review; many of the elements upon which a critic relies to structure their piece simply are not present. There’s no plot, no action, a dearth of actual characters, zero dialogue, little by way of costumes, scenery and props, no overarching sense of dramatic conflict and resolution.
Sounds like I’m going to be negative but just hold on there; the usual “rules” really don’t apply here. What there is, is songs and plenty of them – some 20 plus. For this show is badged as a song cycle, though what distinguishes that from just a random collection of musical pieces is hard to define. It seems (in this case anyway) to come down to mood, the examination of a theme – the ups and downs of relationships – and the fact that the writers are the same throughout. Back in the 1980s the team of Richard Maltby Jnr and David Shire collected together a set of otherwise unused pieces, added new writing and found themselves with a “bookless book musical” on their hands. It turned out to be award winning and has now been revived by Ginger Quiff Media partnering with the Broadway HD platform as an online streamed show. Its new format suits it well.
There’s a musical theatre dream team of Kerry Ellis, Lee Mead, Grace Mouat and Dalton Harris who sing solo and in various combinations capturing a range of moods from the comic (‘Miss Byrd’) to the sultry (‘Back On Base’), from the reflective (‘Fathers Of Fathers’) to the upbeat (‘One Of The Good Guys’).
Each get their moment in the spotlight with Ellis doing a standout job on the Sondheim-like ‘The Bear, The Tiger, The Hamster And The Mole’ and Harris knocking it out of the park every time he opens his mouth; his silky voice is a thing of beauty. Maltby Jnr’s lyrics are often highly witty and inventive and Shire’s music ranges across a number of styles. This is performed well by a small tight band of musicians led by musical director Nick Barstow; he also gets to sing occasionally and again gives good value.
Perhaps best described as a revue, this pared down stripped back musical consistently delivers with each succeeding piece turned into a mini drama of its own. Featuring some impeccable performances and unfussy direction from Stacey Haynes and Maltby Jnr himself, this is a show strong on simplicity and delivered cleanly. It is one which suits the moment as we come back together after the horrors of the pandemic and begin to re-examine our interactions with others. And, as it’s a recorded stream, you’re at liberty to choose your own encore moments and replay any numbers which particularly take your fancy – and there are bound to be several of those.*