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Lyric Stage’s Final Spring Performance Brings Mississippi College Audiences ‘Closer Than Ever’

The full Lyric Stage at MC cast of Maltby and Shire's
The full Lyric Stage at MC cast of Maltby and Shire's "Closer Than Ever" rehearse for the April 11-14 performances in the Jean Pittman Williams Recital Hall in the Aven Fine Arts Building at Mississippi College.

According to the director of Lyric Stage at MC’s upcoming production of “Closer Than Ever,” the song cycle by lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. and composer David Shire is “not your traditional musical.”

A musical revue in two acts, the popular production has been described as a nonstop exploration of everyday struggles in the modern world. There is no dialogue; instead, every song sheds light on each character as he or she examines topics ranging from working couples and unrequited love to mid-life crises and aging.

“The songs in ‘Closer Than Ever’ all have related themes and explore different topics related to change and the middle of life,” said Jamie Ertle, adjunct professor of music at MC who is directing the performance.

Can a cast of undergraduate and graduate performers who are years away from encountering the issues covered in the production relate to the material and give authentic performances?

Absolutely, Ertle says.

“I look at it as a practice in empathy, a practice in putting yourself in someone else’s shoes,” explained Ertle, who has directed Lyric Stage at MC productions since 2021. “Even though they may not have reached middle age, many of our students can draw from their own experiences and use their acting skills to explore the different characters.

“They can analyze the script, put themselves in the situation their character is going through, and look at things from a different perspective.”

Audiences will be the ultimate judge when Lyric Stage at MC presents Maltby and Shire’s “Closer Than Ever” Thursday-Sunday, April 11-14, in the Jean Pittman Williams Recital Hall in the Aven Fine Arts Building. General admission tickets cost $25 each, or $10 for students from any school.

Ertle, an MC graduate who earned her master’s degree at the Boston Conservatory, teaches voice at her alma mater. She said it’s important for students to expand their musical horizons and exercise their creative muscles by participating in theater.

“As a student, I was fortunate to participate in musicals here,” she said. “It’s what I’m most passionate about in life. It’s important to me to help give any student an opportunity to be a part of the theater.

“This production certainly explores different themes than other Lyric Stage at MC productions, such as ‘Little Women,’ and ‘Godspell,’ This presents more mature subject matter, which makes it different.”

Veteran Lyric Stage at MC performer Chloe Newton, a senior journalism major from Oklahoma City, appeared in both musicals, as well as the recent production of “Wizards of Broadway,” a collaboration with Opera Mississippi. She had never heard of “Closer Than Ever” before sinking her teeth into the song, “Life Story.”

“Maltby and Shire have tried to capture the reality of being a human,” Newton said. “When we think of musical theater, we often think of shows that have a whimsical element to them. ‘Closer Than Ever’ is about humanity and the challenges humans face along their life journey.

“The most challenging aspect of my role is portraying an older adult who has lived a lot more life than I have. She’s been married, has a child, and has been in the workforce for a while – all things I have yet to experience. Finding commonalities between us has been the key to understanding who she is.”

Camden Clem, a senior English literature major from Madison, has a dual role in the production: as stage manager, she works closely with the director and production team to ensure a smooth transition between performances; as a member of the ensemble, she sings and dances alongside other cast members in group numbers.

What intrigues her about “Closer Than Ever” is the variety of songs in the show and the “catchy nature” of the music.

“I had to be a part of this because the songs are so much fun,” Clem said. “But what really drew me to the production were the people. Everyone is so wonderful, supportive, and uplifting. Over the three years I’ve been involved with Lyric Stage, I’ve made some of the best friends of my life and found a space where I feel comfortable and safe to be myself and to grow as a person as well as an artist.”

One of those responsible for establishing that culture – and a driving force behind the thriving musical theater scene at Mississippi College – will be bidding Lyric Stage adieu after this production. Nicholas Perna, associate professor of voice and voice pedagogy and producer of Lyric Stage at MC, has accepted a similar position at the University of Colorado Boulder College of Music.

Ertle called the position “a distinct honor” in the voice pedagogy field.

“He’s certainly a wonderful colleague to work with and he will definitely be missed,” she said. “He’s full of knowledge and has been generous about sharing that with us. The main things I’ve learned from him are to work hard, make sure to be prepared, and inspire your students to do the same.”

Newton has been inspired by Perna’s enthusiasm and the care he has demonstrated to everyone involved with Lyric Stage at MC.

“His encouragement always propels me to be a better performer each passing day,” she said. “He worked countless hours to get this program off the ground after the pandemic impacted performing arts all across the world. I know he will do amazing things in Boulder.”

Clem had a more personal take on Perna’s contributions.

“Without his continued support and encouragement to pursue stage management, I don’t know if I would have pursued theater more seriously,” she said. “Dr. Perna has fostered a community here at MC where we are able to discover our passion for theater and have fun doing it.”

“Closer Than Ever” was originally written for a small cast, but Lyric Stage’s deep slate of talented performers led Ertle to expand the ensemble.

“That’s the benefit of a more flexible song cycle-type show,” she said. “We have four or five larger group numbers, then the rest of the show is interspersed with solo numbers, duets, and trios. Some songs are really funny and might make the audience laugh. Others will make the audience reminisce or reflect on different aspects of life.

“My favorite part of working on this production is being able to get new students involved. We’ve got a larger student population this year and we’ve had a good turnout for auditions. It’s been rewarding.”

Along with Newton and Clem, the full company includes Daniel Bunting, Joshua Burdeaux, Cez Cariño, Annalee Crawford, Tatianna Dismuke, David Doyle, Andrew Edwards, Aiden Flowers, Ella Goodin, Maria Guay, Karis Hall, Brelyn Hayes, Abigail Hughes, Carson Jones, Salih Kavruk, Ainsley Marler, Lily Meadows, Sydney Roberts, Zack Templeton, Maggie Triplett, and Abigail Young.

Although the production features vocal performances only, Newton said the show is definitely character-driven.

“My main role is featured in the song ‘Life Story,’” she said. “My character is grappling with whether marriage to her ex-husband is better than being in her current state of loneliness. The song describes her life story, from her divorce to her single-motherhood to her hard-driven work as a writer fighting for equal pay to her current state of loneliness.

“While I have not fought these battles myself, this role gives me the chance to learn how to relate better to those who have. I have to think through the emotions that this character is feeling and translate them on stage. Performing teaches me empathy and allows me to better understand people who come from a variety of backgrounds.”

Clem said this character exploration can reveal the eternal verities of life.

“Although the show was written decades ago and about characters much older than ourselves, there are truths woven throughout the show about what it means to be a person moving through life with others,” she said. “Those core themes really hit us as a cast and I hope they will affect the audience when they see pieces of their own experiences in different parts of the show.”

The production’s subject matter may get heavy at times, but “Closer Than Ever” is not without humor, Newton said.

“While this show tackles a lot of challenges faced by adults, it has a lot of lighter moments as well,” she said. “There are several moments that I still laugh at even though I have seen them dozens of times.

“Sometimes you have to laugh when life gets hard and I think this show does a great job of expressing that. I can’t wait for the audience to relate and laugh with us.”

Ertle said audiences should fine Lyric Stage at MC’s production of “Closer Than Ever” to be extremely thought-provoking.

“We want people to be entertained and maybe even leave humming a tune or having gained a fresh perspective on something,” she said.

To purchase tickets to Maltby and Shire’s “Closer Than Ever” at Mississippi College, visit For more information, visit Lyric Stage on Facebook or find us on Instagram @lyricstagemc.