by Michael Bowen

CenterStage scored a hit last time out with I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change -- dinner theater with good food, good singing and lots of hummable commentary about relationships. With almost the same personnel, the theater is trying to score again with Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire's Closer Than Ever (through May 29).

It's only a partial success.

Together or separately, Maltby and Shire have won Emmys, Tonys and an Oscar. After their musical Baby had succeeded on Broadway, they gathered "personal confessions" from their "urban file" -- along with several numbers that had been jettisoned from Baby -- and called it good, opening Closer Than Ever in 1989 off-Broadway.

Which is the problem. Director Reed McColm's program notes describe Closer Than Ever as "compiled [from] several such Maltby & amp; Shire numbers, written for unproduced shows, cut from produced shows, or written for other occasions." But revues reveal their own insecurity about their plotlessness when they strain to transpose, juxtapose and cut out what they consider narrative adipose -- anything to come up with something resembling a plot. It's the dirty little secret of musical revues. The whole evening has the feel of songs that are kind of cute but the composers didn't have any use for them elsewhere, so they threw 'em together into a show all jumbled up and tried to provide a bit of a story line but who cares really, sure hope you like it.

McColm has paired up some of the numbers. There are women who hear their biological clocks ticking and women who've decided to chuck all men out the window and just go ahead with solo parenting. There's a divorced middle-aged career woman (Tamara Schupman, wonderful as always) whose regrets come through loud and clear despite a refrain of "I'm not complaining." "This Lock," about the indivisibility of a second marriage, is pulled from yet another musical, and, as McColm's director's notes proclaim, is produced here for the first time anywhere. But "This Lock" uses hokey visual symbols to make a saccharine point. During the show, moreover, the song pairings didn't create any noticeable narrative framework.

Five of the six cast members from Love/Perfect/Change reappear here: Tony Caprile, Janean Jorgensen and Schupman onstage, and, behind the scenes, McColm and John Hurt as director and assistant director. Michael Hynes (of Men in the Making) rounds out the cast. (On May 14 only, Andrew Start will sub in for Hynes.)

With that talented bunch, there are bound to be moments in Closer Than Ever when we can share in a universal emotion strongly felt and memorably expressed: In "She Loves Me Not," a trio of singers express unrequited love. "The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster and the Mole" and "It's Never That Easy," among others, all displayed the quartet's tight harmonizing. All four singers met the challenge of Maltby and Shire's complex musical lines.

Often, the composers' efforts at musical cuteness (or narrative coherence) fall flat. One number, comically expressing the mutual resentments of three lifelong female friends, was thrown off-kilter by the fact that there are only two women in the cast to sing it. (The solution involved T-shirts with women's faces imprinted on the front.) A spoof on Muzak seemed dated -- and sure, enough, it was written in 1965. "Miss Byrd" is a straight male songwriter's fantasy: All those mousy secretaries, you see, are actually going off during their lunch hours and having torrid sex. Jorgensen conveyed the secrecy more than the sweet sexual abandon, but then she's also asked during the song to rhyme "la dee da" with "nipples under my bra." Maltby and Shire don't dumb it down, rhyming "second" with "fecund" and "Florida" with "horrider" -- but then again, they also have one fellow proclaim that "my mind is suffused with a mystic glow." Heavy.

The problems aren't located exclusively onstage. Artistic Director Tim Behrens announced before the show, with regret, that CenterStage is being forced to sue its former financial backers, the Odd Girls, seeking a declaratory judgment that the theater's 20-year lease remain valid. It's a legal tangle that comes at a time when CenterStage needs to stay focused on offering appealing fare to jazz aficionados and musical theater lovers.

With its upstairs jazz club and emphasis upon hiring local theater talent in a dinner-theater setting duplicated nowhere else around here, CenterStage is a breath of fresh air for downtown. With its present financial troubles, it could use a hit. But Closer Than Ever, coming on the heels of Love/Perfect/Change, feels like somebody going to the well too many times.

Publication date: 05/13/04

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.