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  • ClearBlueTuesday.jpgOf the many artistic works that have attempted to make sense of September 11, 2001, none has captured the New York perspective of the quietly hellish aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center better than Clear Blue Tuesday. The musical film, which was conceived, directed, and partially written by Elizabeth Lucas and is available for purchase at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (which begins today), examines the tragedy itself only obliquely. It focuses instead on the long-lasting effects of that violation of national and personal security on 11 New Yorkers, and through them you come to understand the day's loss—and potential gains—in ways you couldn't even if you were surrounded by CGI explosions.

    That's no small feat for any dramatic presentation, let alone a low-budget film, let alone one without even a single performer likely to be recognizable to anyone outside Manhattan's theatre and indie-music communities. Yet it is accomplished, with impressive clarity, seriousness, and even humor, in a way sure to please all but the most didactic musical-movie fans. Is it a great musical? No, it's not cohesive enough for that. Is it a great film? Certainly not—too uneven and scattershot. But like the people it follows across seven specific Tuesdays, the first or second in each September from 2001 to 2007, it knows that living and loving are greater than greatness, and makes the sacrifices it must in pursuit of that message.

    The biggest of these is complete coherence of character, an issue that relates directly to the concept around which the movie was created. Each of the 11 leads composed his or her own songs, and contributed to the writing of his or her scenes, with Lucas then assembling the pieces and working with the company to smooth over the rough spots. This succeeds in creating a cacophony of distinct voices all resounding in some unusual but undeniable harmony—just like New York City—but doesn't ensure consistency from beginning to end.

    The story of Jain (Vedant Gokhale), for example, the young Indian-American man whose life is thrust into confusion and suspicion when his skin color becomes verboten following 9/11, is sad and sweet: After moving from job to job, he falls for, but fails to immediately impress, the girl of his dreams, Sam (Cassandra Kubinski), but undertakes a years-long journey to win her heart. By contrast, Etta (Erin Hill) is presented with an almost suffocating whimsy. Sam's roommate and a "sci-fi harpist" who plies her trade at Star Trek conventions, she tends to abandon blind dates who insult Voyager's Captain Janeway, and sings as her big solo about galactic synchronicity before a swirling starscape and performs a brief pas de deux with a tall gentleman in a cheap-looking spacesuit.

    It's not Clear Blue Tuesday's finest moment. Nor are most of the scenes surrounding Syd (Brother Love), a zany-haired rock musician who auditions Jain for his band and meets Sam at a club soon after she's broken up with her boyfriend (Christopher J. Hanke, in an odd but funny two-minute bit), but who seems thrown in mostly to satisfy those who just can't get enough stoner comedy.

    The other stories track better. There's a haunting reality about Syd's terminally dissatisfied friend, Daniel (Jeremy Schonfeld), a screenwriter who lost the woman he loved in the WTC attacks, and can't find solace in either his new wife, Reena (Julie Danao-Salkin), an aspiring photographer, or their daughter. An executive, Kyle (Asa Somers), is driven to drugs and workaholism when his artist wife, Rose (Becca Ayers), becomes obsessed with painting death. Jack (Greg Naughton), Kyle's employee, loses his job in the post-9/11 economic downturn and ends up on the streets. Caroline (Jan O'Dell), an aging entrepreneur who received a sizeable relief check after being injured in the attack, is having trouble getting her life back in gear, and sees her former protegée, Reena, as the potential solution to her problems. Ricardo (Robert Hager) is Kyle and Rose's wisdom-filled doorman, but finds himself on the outside looking in more often than he'd like.

    That the stories tie together as effortlessly as they do is evidence of the care Lucas and her cast have employed. This is not a story where each new relationship is treated as a laugh line, or hokey evidence of New York's randomness. Some people meet only tangentially; others never meet at all. But through the connections that do happen comes the feeling of support and continuity, the reminder that what you do and say can (and probably will) affect many people you'll never even meet—and that even cold-blooded mass murder can inspire the renewal of humanity in those open to receiving it.

    Seeing how each of the characters learns this is the prime benefit of setting the action over six years, but there are others as well. We see how the passing of time strengthens certain bonds and weakens others, how some people evolve while others remain rooted in place, and how someone you unthinkingly pass by on the street may become—or may have once been—the most important person in your life. You can't know that a stranger will always be strange anymore than you can know that a goodbye you say in the morning won't become a lifetime commitment in the afternoon—so why take the risk?

    Books, movies, and plays that deal with September 11 tend to neglect this aspect of the story in favor of more immediate and visceral thrills, and its reluctance to do the same makes Clear Blue Tuesday feel more profound and moving than it feels like it should be. Lucas beautifully captures the city's loneliness, with shots framing one or two people before bustling or panoramic vistas, but she's less effective in highlighting the potential togetherness around which the story ultimately turns—when the characters all collide at the film's end, it's a cathartic but unlikely scene that's not entirely supported by all the isolation that leads up to it.

    The uneven structure and quality of the individual stories and songs doesn't help, though the final effect is a definitive net positive. Gokhale's songs are particularly effective at revealing Jain as a man who's eager to please but ill-equipped to do so, but who can eventually position himself to be the great lover he dreams of. There's nothing special about Kyle's smarmy ode to downsizing, "Help Me Help You," until it reappears in a quieter, harsher context when it's time for Kyle and Rose to split. O'Dell and Danao-Salkin have plaintively pretty numbers about the jagged intersections of their personal and professional lives. The performers are all convincing actors onscreen who make the most of the time they have, even if Hager and Brother Love have too little to do of substance to make much of an impression.

    At least by themselves. When all 11 are considered collectively, they do register as a vivid cross-section of New York in all its surprising and maddening messiness. And that's what makes Clear Blue Tuesday as a whole work even if a nontrivial number of its individual elements don't. Though everyone isn't physically united until the final scene, the story of the movie is about them all coming to realize that they're all part of the same family: united by tragedy and in dire need of moving beyond it to discover and cultivate a greater sense of themselves and others. It's something we all wish were possible, yet often seems unattainable. But even as it takes nearly as many wrong turns as right ones, Clear Blue Tuesday points the way to that salvation.

    Top to bottom: Becca Ayers; Julie Danao-Salkin and Jeremy Schonfeld; Erin Hill; Cassandra Kubinski and Vedant Gokhale; and Jan O'Dell.

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