- The Washington Times - Friday, July 4, 2003

The contemporary Broadway songwriting duo of Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire may not come to mind as easily as, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Lowe. That, however, is no excuse not to broaden your song-and-dance horizons at MetroStage’s deft production of “Closer Than Ever,” a high-energy revue of the showstoppers of Mr. Shire (music) and Mr. Maltby (lyrics).

Local favorites Tracy Lynn Olivera, Russell Sunday, Eileen Ward and Jamie Zemarel, under the musical direction of Howard Breitbart, lend their considerable voices to a swiftly moving catalog of Maltby-Shire compositions, many from their hit musical “Baby.”

Maltby-Shire songs tend to be realistic snapshots of modern life — multiple marriages (“Another Wedding Song”), an unorthodox love triangle (“She Loves Me Not”), fitness fads (“There’s Nothing Like It”) and the dating game (“It’s Never That Easy/I’ve Been There Before”).

The lyrics are full of pop culture references from the late ‘70s to the ‘90s, while the melodies are anchored in the American musical tradition, but updated with pop, folk and rock accents.



The setting is uncomplicated and uncluttered. In front of a silver-curtained backdrop sits a grand piano, with Mr. Breitbart at the keys, and an upright bass, played by Daniel Felton, who most recently lent an intensely patriotic air to “1776” at Ford’s Theatre.

The four singers are casually clad in khaki pants and shirts in sherbet hues, giving the revue a feeling of summery ease.

There is nothing laid-back about their pipes, however.

MetroStage is a small theater, and the quartet socks these songs across the footlights as if they are belting it out in the middle of Times Square. The harmonies are perfect, if somewhat aggressive and hectic in the opening number, “Doors,” a song about obstacles and opportunities.

The pep-pill pace continues with the next song, “You Want to Be My Friend,” in which a cooled-off swain (Mr. Zemarel) tells Miss Olivera he wants to be “just friends,” and her response is a comically adept rattling off of all the people she already has in her life. The frantic rhythm works well here, as Miss Olivera bristles at the very idea of acquiring yet another male friend when what she really wants is romance and commitment. While Miss Olivera magnificently rants away, Mr. Zemarel can be seen slithering across the stage on his belly, like a snake.

Miss Ward possesses a voice that can reach operatic heights, but her pitch is often at odds with the jangly pop rhythms of Mr. Shire’s music, and the strain shows in “What Am I Doin’?” and “Patterns.” She is far more effective with the slower, reflective song “Life Story” — in which a child of the ‘60s and women’s libber looks back on her choices — and with the coy, clever lyrics and patter-rhythm of “The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster & the Mole.”

A veteran of cabarets and musicals, Miss Olivera has a relaxed handle on the compositions, giving them a Barbara Cook-like sass and cool. She is sultry in the scatty “Back on Bass,” and witty and precise in the duet with Mr. Breitbart, “There.”

Her counterpart in musical ease is Mr. Zemarel, who masterfully underplays the emotions in “The Good Guys” (a salute to menschy men) and “Father of Fathers,” a rueful ode to paternity that ends in a stirring duet between Mr. Zemarel and Mr. Sunday.

Taken as a whole, the songs in “Closer Than Ever” reflect the times in which they were written — the go-go ‘80s and ‘90s. Yet there is nothing nostalgic or sentimental about them. Instead, they constitute a bright evening of musical theater about people who lead busy, complicated lives and are unafraid of change.

***

WHAT: “Closer Than Ever” by Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire

WHERE: MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Aug. 3.

TICKETS: $30-$35

PHONE: 703/548.9044

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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