Four singers, one piano, one all-purpose chair. In the modest revue Closer Than Ever, that's all it takes to deliver a completely engaging evening of musical theater. Because the show, which was first produced off Broadway in 1989, is so infrequently staged, this current mounting by the Avalon Theatre Company is something of an event. Add the professional polish of this production, and an event becomes an occasion.
Some of these nearly two dozen songs by Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire are leftovers from their Broadway musical Baby; others are from shows that never saw the light of day; a few were written especially for this revue. There's no reason they should all hang together so well. But they do, perhaps because the songs' underlying subjects obsession, midlife crises, regrets, second chances, acceptance are as immediate and involving today as when the tunes were written.
Ron Gibbs has staged the production with unpretentious clarity. He makes marvelous use of the occasional telling prop. He knows when and how to move his singers (a shrug is more effective than a kick). He knows the benefits of high energy and the strengths of stillness. This is intelligent, respectful direction. Gibbs is aided by musical director David Horstman, who plays the piano and even sings a line or two.
Duets and trios are sprinkled throughout the evening, but mostly it's solos. All four singers have impressive moments. In "Life Story" Michele Burdette Elmore captures the touching irony of a career divorcee who's "not complaining." Larry Mabrey brings poignance to "If I Sing," about a composer who is indeed his father's son. (Both Maltby and Shire are the sons of musicians.) Tom O'Brien nearly justifies Peeping Tom-foolery in the explosive "What Am I Doin'?" and Angela Schulz reveals the wicked secret life of the sensuous "Miss Byrd," who dances across the stage without ever leaving her swivel chair. In addition there are delicious ensemble attacks on Muzak and physical-fitness enthusiasts.
In Act Two a lyric in the song "Patterns" alludes to "feelings with no name." Closer Than Ever doesn't pin down those feelings with name tags, but it does give them words that are often witty and pungent and identifiable. By evening's end the through-line that drives Baby "the story goes on" is repeated here. Only now it's the songs that go on exuberant and sassy, ultimately rueful reminding us all just how ambitious and satisfying a modest musical revue can be.