An Upwardly Mobile Musical

Baby boomer sensibility reached an all-time level of overexposure when the drama thirtysomething aired on television from 1987 through 1991. The show followed the angst-ridden escapades of white, educated, mostly overachieving and workaholic friends. Enamored with analyzing their every emotional twinge, this gang perfected an approach to life that blended the values of the Seventies and the Eighties: They coupled obsessive self-assessment with the pursuit of careers, family, and property. Watching the crises detailed in weekly episodes was simultaneously annoying (akin to feeling vexed at a family gathering) and engrossing (like watching home movies and being pleased with the way you look).

Imagine thirtysomething as a musical revue and you'll have an idea of the pleasures and the banalities of Closer Than Ever. It's a compendium of songs by Richard Maltby, Jr., and David Shire that's enjoying a polished, well-tooled production at Hollywood Boulevard Theatre. Languidly paced by director Amy London and presented cabaret-style, with on-stage piano and bass players accompanying four performers, the show chronicles the longings of upwardly mobile urbanites who revel in the trappings of privilege (summer houses, high-powered jobs, bodies sculpted by personal trainers) yet yearn for things more intangible. Love, family, happiness, adventures, or the lack thereof are examined in musical numbers ranging from the ironic to the tender, the whimsical to the bittersweet.

If yuppies singing the blues about what they do not have irritates you, be forewarned: You may feel uncharitable about the tone of much of this evening. Maltby and Shire's musical moanings are about as far from the the South Side of Chicago as the blues can get. You will not hear plaintive guitar licks, gravelly voices, or lyrics such as "My baby done left me, I'm down to my last dime." The misery in Closer Than Ever runs more along the lines of this lament from "One of the Good Guys," a song in which a man reminisces about the affair he almost had: "We're strangling in plenty/ and whining for more." If you can sit through similar snivelings about the hardships of entitlement, however, the parts that work in this earnest, not terribly taxing show overshadow those that don't.

Seasoned writers Maltby and Shire have, separately and together, written popular music for the theater or film for years, with varying degrees of success. Maltby, who also directs and produces, co-wrote such hits as Miss Saigon and Song and Dance and came up with the idea for Ain't Misbehavin'; he also worked on the ill-fated musical Nick and Nora. Shire has composed award-winning film scores, from Norma Rae to The World According to Garp. As a pair, the men created two revues -- Starting Here, Starting Now and Baby -- and most recently collaborated on the stage version of the movie Big, which did not fare well on Broadway last season. Closer Than Ever showcases their strengths as a songwriting team.

Maltby has a flair for conveying character and story through vivid lyrics so that each song plays as if it were a short episode. In humorous numbers ("You Want to Be My Friend?" pokes fun at breaking up, and "There's Nothing Like It" spoofs being a slave to the gym), he relies on lead-ins and punch lines to make his points; in ballads ("Life Story" takes stock of the past; "Father of Fathers" honors intergenerational love) he tends to be confessional. Shire's melodies -- playful or ruminative, depending on the lyrical content -- underscore the episodic quality of these songs rather than overwhelming them.

The numbers are not strung together by a coherent book, nor are they even about characters who know each other from song to song. Still, the narrative nature of each, combined with the shared themes of yearning and searching, results in an affecting gestalt by the end of the night -- an impression of disparate pieces having created a whole.

Four assured singer/actors stroll on and off an understated, two-tiered set, performing variously as a quartet, trio, duo, or solo. Louis Silvers's strong voice does justice to the music, although his acting tends toward the premeditated; you want him to break out of the lines he has drawn for himself and sacrifice precision for surprise. Gia Bradley-Cheda brings little inspiration to "The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster, and the Mole," a song exploring gender differences in the animal world that might smoke with a more ribald approach. But Bradley-Cheda redeems herself in a hauntingly sung and movingly acted rendition of "Patterns," about a lonely woman skirting the border of depression. The song also proves that lyricist Maltby can handle complex emotions as well as lighter fare.

Irene Adjan confidently juggles singing, acting, and comedy, lending the evening a welcome cheeky edge whether she alludes to secret liaisons in "Miss Byrd" or scat sings during "Back on Base." And Aaron Cimadevilla brings soul to the show. The least experienced performer of the ensemble, Cimadevilla nonetheless could have carried the two acts almost single-handedly. His easy, unpretentious manner at first disguises the richness of his performance. But he turns himself inside out for every song he performs, giving away his heart with particular generosity in "Like a Baby," "If I Sing," and "Father of Fathers."

In Closer Than Ever, Maltby and Shire rarely uncover anything about modern relationships that has not been hashed to death on television, at the movies, or in glossy magazines. Yet in the intimate space of Hollywood Boulevard Theatre this cast delivers the already worn-out boomer messages with considerable charm.

Boot the Hardy Boys out of the closet, time-travel them to the Nineties, and cross them with the men in Calvin Klein underwear ads. The hybrid spawn: Cute Boys in Their Underpants by Robert Coles, an incorrigibly out-there lampoon of show business in general and gay-themed theater in particular. On-stage at the EDGE/Theatre on South Beach, Cute Boys is not for the sexually faint of heart. In fact, if you're not acquainted with the particulars of gay sex you may need a dictionary. But don't worry too much about getting all the references; the show isn't meant in the least to be taken literally, which is why it's such a riot.

Director Peter Zaragoza takes Coles's already broad satire to ludicrously buffoonish -- and very funny -- extremes. In this play within a play, a director (portrayed with over-the-top relish by Robert Tamayo) has cast both serious actors and bubbleheads (with names like Buck and Colt) in a conceptual (read: incomprehensible) defense of promiscuity. Titled Cute Boys in Their Underpants, the script has survived so many revisions that each cast member's copy boasts a title from a previous version: Boys Who Get Spanked; Boys with No Clothes; Spread-Eagle Boys. (I kid you not.)

Coles intersperses the burlesque with a "serious" story line about gay men (as opposed to cute boys) seeking mature relationships (as opposed to cute boys). In these patches the writing seems lifted from a self-help best-seller (Gay Men Who Love Too Much and the Bimboys Who Reject Them?). The playwright is far more effective when savaging the theater scene. An actor lit by a spotlight pouts, "I look fat in yellow. Can I have a red light?" Another actor complaining about the director's insistence that he perform a sex scene robotically insists, "I feel like I'm doing S&M kabuki."

Some members of the "real" cast can even act, particularly Michael Deluca as Andre. But no one is in contention for a Tony Award here; everyone is just having a great time, on-stage and off. The packed house the night I was there sang along at full throttle with a tape of Ethel Merman's "There's No Business Like Show Business" that played between scenes.

Incidentally, this original has engendered a cottage industry of CB spin-offs: Cute Boys in Their Underpants Go to France, Cute Boys in Their Underpants Re-enact Desert Storm, Cute Boys in Their Underpants Fight the Evil Trolls. What would the Hardy Boys say?

Closer Than Ever.
Lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr.; music by David Shire; directed by Amy London; with Irene Adjan, Gia Bradley-Cheda, Aaron Cimadevilla, and Louis Silvers. Through October 27. For information, call 954-929-5400 or see "Calendar Listings."

Cute Boys in Their Underpants.
Written by Robert Coles; directed by Peter Zaragoza; with Robert Tamayo, Michael Deluca, Ed McQuillan, and Craig Hoehn. Through November 3. Call 531-6083 or see "Calendar Listings.


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