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Same Time Next Year 

Meet Kate Baldwin, the Muny's answer to Jason Isringhausen.

Looking for a consistent closer? Jason Isringhausen doesn't have a lock on that job. This summer and last, the Muny has closed out its season with Kate Baldwin, and she does a bang-up job. Last year Baldwin played against the inherent sentimentality in The Sound of Music to transform Maria into a vibrant woman of refreshing poise and brio. Now she's back to play the female lead in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Since arriving in New York in 1999, Baldwin, a native of Evanston, Illinois, has enjoyed a thriving career, which includes a remarkably poignant performance in the Rep Studio staging of The Last Five Years. But until The Sound of Music last August, she'd never acted in a venue as large as the 11,000-seat Muny, a challenge she found daunting. "Maria opens the show all alone, in the dark, with just a spotlight," Baldwin says. "I remember standing there watching the bugs flying in and out of the spotlight and telling myself, 'Just look at Ben [Whiteley],' our conductor. All I could do was focus on his hands and his downbeat. At that point I didn't even trust my ears. I didn't know if I was singing in tempo or even on pitch. I lost all faith in my abilities. Ben was a beacon for me until I finally walked downstage, felt the audience and realized, they're just people out there, it's going to be OK. Look at how vast and how great this is. Now I have to figure out how to embrace it."

By evening's end the embracing was mutual. Could Baldwin feel the warm audience response? Not really, she acknowledges: "I definitely felt it from my cast members, but it's hard to assess a large audience. I'm not even good at assessing an audience in a smaller venue. I'm so wrapped up in what's happening onstage I don't pay much attention to laughter or applause, because it's always on to the next moment."

In the year since her Muny debut, Baldwin has hardly had a free moment. Last September in New York she was one of the original cast members in the irreverent revue Bush Is Bad: The Musical Cure for the Blue-States Blues. Eleven months later, what was intended as an eight-week run is still going strong. "There's an audience for it," Baldwin says in one of the understatements of the still-young century. "People come back over and over." In October she married actor-singer Graham Rowat. The next day bride and groom began rehearsals for the San Francisco production of White Christmas. He played the Bing Crosby role; she was Rosemary Clooney. The show closed on New Year's Eve; the next day Baldwin and Rowat flew to Bora Bora for a belated honeymoon.

While she was in San Francisco, New Jersey's famed Paper Mill Playhouse offered Baldwin the role of Irene Molloy in a summer production of Hello, Dolly! By the time the Muny invited her back, she was only available for this final week. She closed in Dolly and arrived in town three days later. Baldwin has never seen Seven Brides onstage and only knows "bits and pieces" of the movie, so she's not unduly influenced by Jane Powell's goody-two-shoes portrayal of Milly.

"I think Milly has spunk," Baldwin says. "I've always had a problem with the 'damsel in distress waiting for Prince Charming to come take me away' notion that people have toward what they describe as 'old-fashioned' musicals. I never think of the classic musicals as old-fashioned; I think of them as timeless. Obviously they've survived for some reason, so they deserve further examination. Yes, Seven Brides deals with the battle of the sexes. But I think that all Milly really wants is respect, and to teach respect for women. And gee, doesn't everybody come out a winner when that is finally figured out?"

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