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The Rosendale Theatre Collective

Even Weekenders Get the Blues: Musical Closer Than Ever at Shandaken Theatrical Society by Jay Blotcher

Musical theatre has celebrated everybody from lowlife (Guys and Dolls, Les Miserables) to royalty (The King and I, Evita). In the last generation, however, a different demographic has pushed to the fore as musical protagonist: the neurotic, well-heeled, status-conscious urbanite from New York City. In Hudson Valley parlance: weekenders.

In acclaimed shows such as the landmark Company (1970) and March of the Falsettos (1981), we first came to know this complicated archetype. These people were ambitious and striving, and could confidently navigate their way through a rare wine list. But affluence and sophistication did not prepare them for the everyday heartaches of life: romantic pitfalls, rebellious children and elusive answers to existential questions of happiness and purpose.

Among the canon of musicals about the angst of the American Metropolitan Yuppie is Closer than Ever. The 1989 Off-Broadway hit will be presented by the Shandaken Theatrical Society of Phoenicia in seven performances between August 14 and 21.

The director of the STS production, theatre veteran Ricarda O’Conner, calls Closer Than Ever “a musical without a book.” Specifically, the award-winning show (lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. and music by David Shire) is a musical revue without dialogue. Yet the lack of connective chatter does not diminish its narrative power. “Every song in Closer Than Ever is a story unto itself,” she said.

Designed for a tenor, baritone, soprano and mezzo, the show depicts numerous characters—from their 30s through 50s—coping with the highs and lows of life. That is to say, the rites of passage of growing up. Closer Than Ever, O’Conner said, is “poignant, funny, ironic.”

In a technique reminiscent of the origins of A Chorus Line, composers Maltby and Shire found inspiration—and verisimilitude—for Closer Than Ever by listening to the concerns of their accomplished but troubled Manhattan friends.

The resulting score, O’Conner said, “covers everything from divorce to kids to when parents are ill; when you get married for the second time; how your life changes from youthful aspirations and the ephemeral nature of it.” For example, in one number a husband asks the wife to consider becoming his friend after divorce. Her answer? She throws him out of the apartment, slamming the door on her old life.

“These people are everyone,” O’Conner said. “This is a universal show. These are people who have lived a little while.”

O’Conner, who first saw the show in its original 1989-90 run at The Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, emphasized the strength of the show’s score. “Everything you need to know is already written for you. Just reading the lyrics, you are reading a beautiful little script. [Maltby] is very much like Sondheim in that way.” The transplanted New Yorker first mounted her own production of Closer Than Ever a few years ago at the Eastman Opera Theatre in Rochester, New York. Reaching middle age herself—with its attendant crises—has only deepened O’Conner’s understanding of the show, she said.

The emotionally taxing subject matter of Closer Than Ever is wedded to lyrically rich songs. Performing them, O’Conner said, is an “extremely rigorous” task for even a seasoned performer, featuring “a lot of difficult harmony” for two, three and four voices.

The cast members are equal to the task, the director said. Janna Cardia “is a powerhouse, an effortless singer.” With each character in the show, “her face seems to change—she looks like a different person.” Cardia has appeared in the national tour of Cinderella (starring Lea Solanga) and has been in regional productions of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Into The Woods, Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Full Monty and another Yuppie-genre musical, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.

O’Conner describes Austin Ku as “multi-faceted; there’s very much a chameleon feeling to him.” The Manhattan-based Ku has toured with the San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival and the National Jewish Theatre Festival. Regionally, he has been in shows at Lyric Stage of Boston, Kansas City Starlight Theatre and TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley.

Alex Agard possesses “an extraordinary rich, velvety baritone,” O’Conner said, complemented by “a great dignity and poise.” In February, the Manhattan-based Agard concluded a two-year run in Festival of the Lion King at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, after more than 1,400 performances.

The Phoenicia-based Amy Wallace, also artistic director of STS, is “as good a singer as people from the city,” O’Conner said. Wallace appeared in the world premiere of The Kafka Project at the Ohio Theater in New York City. Her regional theatre credits include roles in Into the Woods, Oliver! and Man of La Mancha. At STS, Wallace has directed The Miser and Godspell.

Chuck Sokolowski, a Woodstock resident, will join the cast briefly to lend his voice to the number “Fathers of Fathers.” He will appear in the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice.

While she has a mere week of rehearsals before mounting Closer Than Ever— “It’s a pressure cooker,” she said—O’Conner is no stranger to tight theatrical deadlines, she said. A few years ago, she had 11 days to direct a cast of 30 in a regional production of My Fair Lady.

Closer Than Ever knowingly delves into the mixed blessings of life, the giddy triumphs as well as the soul-sapping heartaches. It even succeeds in humanizing narcissistic, wealthy New Yorkers. While the material is bittersweet, O’Conner said, the show ultimately conveys hope.

“No matter how you go through life, the difficult or the fabulous patches,” O’Conner said, “the overall message is that life is celebrating. And that ultimately you can find a way.”

Shandaken Theatrical Society (STS) presents Closer Than Ever, directed by Ricarda O’Conner. The August 14 performance at 2:30 PM is part of Phoenicia Festival of the Voice. (Order Aug 14 tickets at www.Phoeniciavoicefest.com) STS performances Aug 17, 18, 19, 20 at 8 PM and Aug 21 2 PM and 8 PM. 10 Church Street, Phoenicia, www.stsplayhouse.com, 845.688.2279.



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