Musical Revue Hits The Spot

(Clockwise, from top left) Buz Tennent, Guy Merola, Marion Bienvenu-Callais and Alison Aldcroft unleash riveting relationship scenarios in musical revue 'Closer Than Ever' Photo courtesy Manoa Valley Theatre

(Clockwise, from top left) Buz Tennent, Guy Merola, Marion Bienvenu-Callais and Alison Aldcroft unleash riveting relationship scenarios in musical revue ‘Closer Than Ever’
Photo courtesy Manoa Valley Theatre

A show made up of songs by Richard Maltby Jr. (lyricist) and David Shire (music), but that never made it into any of their musicals, sounds a wee bit like a discard pile. But that designation couldn’t be more erroneous at Manoa Valley Theatre’s Closer than Ever, a musical revue stringing together one genius gem of a self-contained musical vignette after another.

The songs were first compiled together as their own show in 1989, which may seem to relegate them to a dated, pre-Internet age, but the themes and lyrics are immediately relevant. The language is intelligent ― not intellectual, which can be distancing ― but witty and surprising, alternately poignant and rib-tickling, and the relatable, everyday situations are wrought with emotional heftiness. To say the language has slam poetry cleverness would be to tarnish its brilliance.

A curious arrangement of segmented wood paneling and blocks streaked in warm library hues provides the set’s backdrop. Framed here and there are ordinary instruments from a map to an umbrella, a telephone. Shelves and drawers contain various props for the singers, whose wardrobes are simple, with minor costume changes.

The singers initially appear on the stage all at once, a quartet belting out a harmonious opening number, which is attention catching, but it’s the following songs that alternately spotlight each individual that prove exceptionally captivating.

These voices are melodiously explosive. There’s Buz Tennent’s operatic baritone (which also brought him distinction as Javert in Paliku’s Les Miserables last year) which is offset by the silkiness of Guy Merola’s sweetly tuned pipes. Miguel Pa’ekukui, who appeared in last season’s Smokey Joe Cafe, another MVT musical revue, also occasionally takes the stage. Female vocalists are Marion Bien-venu-Callais and Alison Aldcroft, whom MVT loves, and oh, so do we. Aldcroft’s bright-eyed energy also lit up the Manoa stage in Smokey Joe’s Cafe, and she was unforgettable in last year’s Po’okela-winning turn in Next to Normal. Bienvenu-Callais may be new to Hawaii, but certainly not to musical theater. In addition to a tome of pre-Hawaii experience, her lovely velvet voice was last heard in MVT’s Rent.

Opera singer Kip Wilborn, who joined Tennent in Les Miz as Jean Valjean, directs. The songs under the wrong direction could easily take on the monotonous cadence of an inexperienced poetry reader: La di-da, la da-da-di-da. The glory of Wilborn’s direction is that not a word falls into that easy rut. The musical phrasing and pauses are conversational, leaving us hanging at moments, eager for further divulgences.

All of the songs comprise relationship-oriented subject matter, so plenty of divulging takes place. No real connection exists from song to song except that they tackle human drama, from a triangle of unrequited love to a woman who doesn’t take kindly to the “let’s just be friends” line. Aldcroft’s Miss Byrd is a rip-roaring window into a quiet secretary’s hidden life of wild romance, and Bienvenu-Callais’ The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster and the Mole is a joyful exploration of the biological quirks of human and animal sexuality. In other numbers, a career-oriented couple has a tough time juggling their new baby into their schedule and a housewife gets fed up with the pattern of her humdrum life, but there’s something that reaches into the gut and takes a couple of unexpected turns in Merola’s One of the Good Guys, where an enchanting woman and heady night breezes on a Hawaiian beach stir up a workaday husband’s loins. Yeah, these voices, these lyrics, this music (with Melina Lillios on piano and Derek Higashi on bass) are downright irresistible.

the TICKET stub
When: Through Nov. 30
Where: Manoa Valley Theatre
Cost: $20-$39
More Info: 988-6131,