WATERTOWN — An intimate four-character musical revue should bring the audience up close and personal with the characters on stage. But oddly, the material in “Closer Than Ever,” which opens the New Repertory Theatre’s 30th anniversary season, rarely rises above ho-hum, even with the extraordinary vocal talents of Leigh Barrett, David Foley, Brian Richard Robinson, and Kathy St. George.
“Closer Than Ever” traces the life challenges of folks dealing with relationships in their “middle” years. All of the clichés are here: the guy who can’t commit, the lonely divorcee, the dual-career couple too busy for their baby, the midlife folks back in the dating pool, and the required membership in a health club. Each of the 26 songs is a complete story, and there is no between-song banter to set the scene or offer some insight into the characters. Sometimes that’s not a problem, as in “You Wanna Be My Friend?,” in which the always incomparable St. George blows a fuse when her wimpy boyfriend (Foley) backs out of their relationship. But often the songs simply have no context, and David Shire’s by-the-numbers compositions and Richard Maltby Jr.’s banal lyrics make them instantly forgettable.
That’s too bad, since the musical team of Shire and Maltby Jr. have separately and collectively worked on revues (“Starting Here, Starting Now,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Fosse”) and musicals “Big,” “Baby,” and lyrics for “Miss Saigon.” In this collection of songs, however, the duo stick to superficial, rarely making room for the kind of heartfelt characters whose struggles resonate with our own.
The evening still affords the opportunity to see and hear four local talents strut their stuff. St. George for one, never ceases to amaze, turning the shy “Miss Byrd” into a hilarious tale of secret love affairs, and “Back on Base” into a sexy story of why she’s gaga for the bass player (an affable John Styklunas), including an utterly joyous bit of scat singing worth the price of admission.
Barrett infuses “The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster and the Mole” with a refreshing bit of sass, and then brings down the house with a searing “Patterns” (from the musical “Baby”). Later, she pairs with St. George for a haunting duet, crooning “It’s Never That Easy” as St. George sings “I’ve Been Here Before.”
Brian Richard Robinson, who boasts a truly angelic voice, provides some much-needed nuance to “One of the Good Guys” and a bit of mischief to some comic numbers, while Foley adds some personality to “Next Time” and plays off Barrett nicely as a couple of harried yuppies.
Barrett, who does double duty as director and performer, understands the importance of keeping the songs flowing swiftly and smoothly, and with the help of choreographer Ryan Began, makes excellent use of movable doors and swivel chairs.
Jim Rice and bassist Styklunas are nearly additional characters, with Styklunas drawn in to “Back on Base” and Rice providing not only piano accompaniment, but harmonies and a solo on “Fathers of Fathers.” But no matter how high the quality of the participants, like one of the songs says, there’s just no “There” there.
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.