Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

'Blood Brothers': relative success


New York -- Ellicott City native Ric Ryder presses the close-door button in the Manhattan elevator repeatedly in staccato-like bursts.

"We're going to have to hurry," he tells his mother, "if we're going to have dinner before I have to get to the theater."

A passenger turns and stares. "What show are you in?" he asks.

"Blood Brothers," says Mr. Ryder. "I'm playing the Shaun Cassidy role" of the affluent twin in the Broadway musical about the British class system.

"That's very good!" the passenger says, conveying genuine awe.

Mr. Ryder, 32, is tickled. "Come see it!" he says. "Buy an expensive ticket!"

Everyone laughs.

Richard Burkitt Ryder, called Ric by his mother, Ann, and everybody else, is only half joking. The award-winning show's three main attractions -- pop stars David and Shaun Cassidy and recording artist Petula Clark -- left June 5 after a 10-month run. The show's success now will depend largely on the draw of songwriter and singer Carole King, who is making her Broadway debut.

(Next April, a touring production of the show will stop at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore, but Mr. Ryder doesn't know if he'll be in the cast. Ms. Clark is the only person named to the touring company so far).

"I'm not a star," Mr. Ryder says. "I'm opening in a show" on Broadway. He, Ms. King and Philip Lehl -- who understudied the David Cassidy role and plays opposite Mr. Ryder as the impoverished twin -- opened together June 7 after two weeks of rehearsal. They have received standing ovations ever since, although that may make little difference if critics give thumbs-down to the new cast.

The award-winning play already has had several lives independent of critics. The play has given Mr. Ryder new life, too.

Having followed the show's artistic success in London and Toronto, he wanted to be part of it. Aware that the visas of British actors playing the leads would soon expire, he called last August and asked for an audition. He was given the role of Eddie, the affluent twin in Willy Russell's musical drama, and was to open with Petula Clark and David Cassidy last Aug. 16. Or so he thought.

Tracy Combs of Columbia, a longtime friend from high school and college, remembers it this way: "He called right away to tell me the news -- 'I've got a Broadway play,' he said. I couldn't believe it. We were yelling and screaming into the phone. Word was out that they were bringing in Petula Clark and David Cassidy to boost the show." The British cast was unknown to New York audiences, and the show was losing an estimated $32,000 a week.

"We talked about how great it was for Ric -- how good they must have thought he was to cast him instead of a well-known star. A couple of days later, he called and said they had renegotiated and given the part to Shaun Cassidy."

It was the low point in his career, Mr. Ryder says. "The reality of being so close to something that didn't happen a year ago was terribly disappointing, but it turned out to be a good thing. [Ms. Clark and the Cassidy brothers] saved the show, thank God."

Not only that, but when the producers started looking for replacements this May, they remembered Mr. Ryder and called to offer him the part. "It was out of the blue -- totally unexpected," he says.

The year after the "Blood Brothers" rejection had been the leanest of his career.

Trained as a classical tenor at University of Maryland Baltimore County, Mr. Ryder has lived in four different apartments and spent a lot of time on the road in the seven years he has called New York home. He has sung in shows on round-the-world cruises, starred in a Tokyo presentation of "The Fantasticks," and won accolades for his performance in "Captains Courageous" at Ford's Theatre in Washington.

"He's been pretty fortunate" overall, says Ms. Combs. "He's worked pretty consistently since moving to New York."

And that, says local theater owner and director Toby Orenstein, is rare for 89 percent of the Equity actors in New York. (Mr. Ryder worked with Ms. Orenstein on several productions while growing up in Howard County.)

"It is really quite a fabulous experience so far," says Mr. Ryder of his "Blood Brothers" stint. "I'm enjoying every minute. Carole King is so down to earth. She's made it so easy. When I arrive at the theater, she gives me a kiss and a hug and calls me 'son.' "

In the play, Ms. King plays a cleaning woman who is pregnant with twins. The cleaning woman could care for one more child in her five-child family, but not two. She gives one of the twins to her employer -- a wealthy, childless Liverpool woman.

The twins meet accidentally at age 7, discover they were born on the same day and make a pact to become blood brothers. The play builds on the widening difference in their economic status, their parents' futile efforts to keep them apart and the twins' love for the same woman -- a childhood girlfriend.

"It is a great acting role," Mr. Ryder says. "More like a play with music than a musical. It's a challenge. There is some really difficult acting -- a lot of it -- plenty of it."

Mr. Ryder, Mr. Lehl and American University graduate Shauna Hicks, who plays the twins' childhood girlfriend, play the characters first as 7-year-olds, then as teens, and finally as middle-aged adults.

Far from getting stale night after night, the cast is "finding new things, more things about the words on the page," Mr. Ryder says. "Each performance is more caring. The chemistry is so very good."

On this night, the audience gets caught up in the chemistry. Whistles and robust applause follow the opening act. The final act, with Ms. King's character touching the heads of her sons and joining their hands together, leaves people drained. The applause starts slowly and builds to a crescendo. By the third curtain call, the whole theater is standing and applauding.

Ann Ryder stands limp, lightly touching her seat as the theater empties about her. This is not what she expected. She had planned to see the show twice -- once to watch her son, once to see the show. Now, she is not so sure.

"The looks on Ric's face [as he matured from child to teen to adult in the play] -- I have seen those looks in real life," she says. "Ric didn't tell me anything about the show. I knew it was a musical on a different social level. I didn't know it would be so sad."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad