Finding humour in midlife crisis: Closer Than Ever

The midlife crisis has never been delivered with more humour and lively music than in the Gateway Theatre production of Closer Than Ever. It will affect audience members of all ages, either serving as relatable or cautionary experience with an excellent score. 

Over a span of two hours, the musical comprises of a string of vignettes, each illustrating a different part of the trials, tragedies, sexual encounters and angst-ridden nights that seem inherent to a lot of people who are well into middle age. Most of the performances come from different combinations of the four main actors — Chris King, Kevin Aichele, Ma-Anne Dionisio and Caitriona Murphy. However, the bassist, Danny Balkwill, and the pianist, Caitlin Hayes, step in to take the helm every now and then.

The music is great with a wide range of styles from more traditional show tunes to sassy jazz seduction music. All of the songs deserve to be mentioned for one reason or another, but “Miss Byrd” — which is centred on a restrained, seemingly uptight secretary who recounts all of the incredibly salacious acts she was just committing before coming to work — is particularly wonderful and features the truly amazing vocal range of Murphy. 

Although there is laughter throughout the performance, underneath every song runs a truly profound sadness and remorse for missed opportunities that leaves the viewer both entertained and incredibly depressed. Almost all of the people in the songs are unhappy and thinking of all of the things they could have done differently. They lament this, but have not changed their circumstances and so remain sad. The use of doors — both open and closed — will be heard often in lyrics and seen in the lighting and set. It acts as a defining motif for the production and the lives of the characters. 

From a technical perspective, this play is impressive. The set is a sort of expensive-looking, white-walled penthouse with a vibe straight out of the ’70s and ’80s. The large, blank walls and floor act like a canvas on which the lighting and actors can emote. Several times throughout, the use of lighting against the setting achieved a level of composition that was quite beautiful.

Much credit must go to three UBC alumni involved in the production — Barbara Clayden (Costume Designer), Collette Brown (Assistant Stage Manager) and Marshall McMahen (Set Designer).

Ms. Clayden has been in the industry for over 30 years and has credits with countless theatre companies and productions. She came to work on Closer Than Ever after being involved with three previous works at the Gateway Theatre. 

“I have worked on musicals before, but never one like this,” she said. When asked about her experiences after graduating and if she had any advice to give any prospective arts graduates, she said: 

“I have been very fortunate in that I have managed to make a living as a theatre artist for my whole working life. The challenge is, as you might expect, financial … I am freelance and never know from one year to the next what my income will be. Theatre companies are chronically underfunded, resulting in less work and lower wages. But still, I believe in the magic of it all and will continue to design costumes for those companies that can hire me. 

“Advice? Do it because you love it and because it’s important. Vote for governments that support the arts. Have another kind of employment that can support you when times are lean. And don't give up!”

Brown, another prior collaborator with the Gateway Theatre, has extensive experience in both theatre and opera. When asked to giver her opinion on how the musical might resonate with audience members younger than the characters, she said: 

“For younger audiences, I think this show says that life doesn’t always turn out how you think it will, so you better be ready to enjoy some surprises.”

McMahen has garnered great acclaim in his work as a set designer in his already impressive career. Concerning life after graduating, he said, “I found Vancouver's theatre community to be very welcoming as an emerging designer. I made my first professional connections while studying at UBC and through those generous people, your network expands and you start having more opportunities to show your work. The work always comes from personal recommendations or from people seeing your work themselves. When I first graduated, I spent weeks submitting my resume and portfolio to companies across the country and I don't think I got a single job from any of that. It's always been through people and through the quality of your work.”

It is evident from the results with Closer Than Ever that these UBC alumni are in the midst of great careers in the world of theatre. McMahen's set design was impressive, Brown's influence as assistant stage manager was palpable and Clayden's costume choices were excellent. These aspects, combined with all others of the production, made for an impressive, insightful and entertaining musical.

Closer Than Ever will be running through until February 20.