By JESSICA NEU
Audiences entering the gorgeous Pittsburgh Playhouse to experience Point Park University’s Closer Than Ever are greeted with a dynamic set reminiscent of a 1960s Merv Griffin classic game show. Upstage are musicians Robert Frankenberry (musical director) and Ryan McMasters, who perform Maltby and Shire’s intricate song cycle with precision and style. From the first notes played and the entrance of the show’s four performers, Payten Blake (Woman 1), Libby Lindahl (Woman 2), Jantz Levin (Man 1), and Will Chadek (Man 2), Closer Than Ever presses the accelerator and maintains a stronghold on the audiences’ attention through the final notes.
There is no downbeat or respite in this show that tackles common everyday struggles of the modern world. Closer Than Ever has been described as a musical revue in two acts and contains no dialogue. Many songs are based on stories told to Maltby and Shire by close friends. These stories address ideas that can be taboo to discuss but are more than likely painstakingly relatable for any audience member. Woman 1, Woman 2, Man 1, and Man 2 weave seamlessly in and out of group numbers and solo performances as they sing about unrequited love, putting someone in the “friend zone,” being single and nearing 40 years old, entering the dating world after being in a relationship, and adhering to laborious fitness routines at the gym to better fit into hegemonic societal ideals.
Each performer executes the Sondheim-like score with ease and precision. Their individual ranges also mesh perfectly as they sing in harmony. In each of the twenty-four numbers, the four actors portray different characters struggling with varying levels of angst and anxiety. They flawlessly shift nuanced roles that encapsulate how so many Americans privately deal with the precarity of the mundane of the everyday. In “One of the Good Guys,” Man 1 painfully sings how he rejects the opportunity to pursue a torrent love affair because he has a wife at home.
Conversely, Woman 2 delightfully sings about a scandalous lunchtime affair that cannot be spoken of in “Miss Byrd.” The actors interpret this hilarious and reverent score in a way that provokes raucous laughter and applause from the audience throughout the performance. Their movements are intentional, and their instincts are intelligent. Clever choreography (Eileen Grace Reynolds) integrates simple props to create depth, movement, and a pleasing aesthetic for each number.
Malby’s lyrics are subtle yet sophisticated, and the performer’s timing and delivery of each number make what could be uncomfortable and vulnerable aspects of daily life approachable and seemingly normal. The men sing about how they are with a wife they are supposed to love, one’s daughter has caught the acting bug, and one’s son is sleeping with the babysitter, yet they continue their everyday routines without question.
The women sing about the societal pressures of continuously chasing the unattainable and persevering daily without complaining. Ultimately, we all choose our paths and are expected to move forward with fortitude and without solace. The songs, lyrics, and characters in Closer Than Ever are a mirror of our own lives, our bodies, and our thoughts.
Whether audience members are married, single, parents, grandparents, students, professionals, or unemployed, at least one character will speak directly to your soul. The lyrics are honest, performances are raw, and while the lyrics can be humorous, others offer a proverbial embrace to the unspoken everyday feelings we often try to suppress.
Closer Than Ever was conceived in an era that predates such contentious societal incidents as COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, #MeToo, and even the pervasiveness of social media. When considered in this temporal context, we realize just how much the information fatigue of the digital era has further exasperated the sentiments sung about in Closer Than Ever. As we sprint forward in the digital race to attempt to stay up-to-date with daily affairs while avoiding burnout and doom scrolling through our social media accounts, Closer Than Ever brings us together to depolarize the precarity of the mundane and remind us that our feelings are real, valid, shared and simply, ok.
Closer than Ever creative team: Director: Tomé Cousin, Musical Direction: Robert Frankenberry, Choreography: Eileen Grace Reynolds, Scenic Design: Hayden Bingham, Lighting Design: Sam Crowe, Costume Design: Jeremy Eiben, Sound Design: Ian Stoll, Stage Manager: Abi Cedeño
TICKETS AND DETAILS
Pittsburgh Playhouse’s production of Closer than Ever has evening performances through October 19th -21 st and matinees at 2:30 this Saturday (21st) and Sunday (22nd).
For tickets, visit: https://playhouse.culturaldistrict.org/production/87936/list_performances