For years, Lexington musical theater artists have wondered how long Central Kentucky could keep Ryan Shirar.
A multitalented musician, Shirar played in a wide variety of formats and locations, wrote orchestrations that enhanced productions of some of the great musicals of the American stage, and showed songs in new lights. He ultimately brought Lexington something it had not had for years: a theater company dedicated to presenting traditional Broadway-style musicals.
But with Paragon Music Theatre's presentation of Gypsy next weekend, the question has been answered. Shirar, 29, will leave his posts as executive and music director of the theater to pursue a master's degree in orchestral conducting, specializing in theater, at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
The prestigious music school scouted out Shirar and made him an offer he couldn't refuse.
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"It's a free degree," Shirar said Monday over lunch. "It's a full-tuition scholarship, plus stipend. So it's very hard to turn down an offer to a conservatory for that.
"Ultimately, I love what I do now in Lexington, but even if I stay here and do what I'm doing, I need a graduate degree in order to have a little more stable job. It was the perfect time and perfect opportunity. Things had lined up, and it was almost like ... 'I put it all together for you. You've just got to go.'"
Robyn Peterman-Zahn, Paragon's stage director, says, "Ever since I came here to work with Ryan — and I came because I am so blown away by his talent — I've been telling him he needs to leave."
Peterman-Zahn, who has national stage and film work on her résumé, says Shirar's talent rivals that of musicians she has worked with across the nation, including New York and Los Angeles.
"Ryan has a musicality you just can't learn," she says. "It's a really special gift."
Along with choreographer Diana Evans Pulliam, Peterman-Zahn and Shirar formed a trio that helped drive Paragon to some great heights, including a spring 2009 production of The King and I and last summer's presentation of The Sound of Music.
The company started in 2004 with a production of State Fair, with Tracey Bonner as stage director. After that show, Paragon ping-ponged between big musicals at the Lexington Opera House and smaller fare, such as the Sheldon Harnick-Jerry Bock musical She Loves Me, which Paragon and Actors Guild of Lexington presented at the Downtown Arts Center in 2007. Michael Friedman preceded Peterman-Zahn as the stage director of most of those productions. But the constant in everything the company has done has been Shirar.
That is why Peterman-Zahn says Gypsy will be the swan song not just for Shirar but for the company.
"Paragon's done," she says. "It was Ryan.
"Diana and I will talk about it, and we may do some other shows down the road. But everything happens for a reason, and when things come to an end, it's best to let them end."
Katie Owen, who will play Mama Rose in Gypsy, says, "Ryan is one of a kind. He's such a humble spirit, and he put so much time and effort and money into Paragon. This is a very bittersweet time because we will miss him, but we are so happy for him."
In addition to Paragon, Shirar worked in the music departments of Berea College and Eastern Kentucky University, and he was a free-lance musician in the region, even conducting the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra on several occasions.
But his most public profile has been Paragon.
Gypsy, he says, "marks the end of an era, so we're pulling out all the stops — it's our largest orchestra, our largest cast, largest scenic design."
He's not as ready as Peterman-Zahn to pronounce Paragon "done," but he acknowledges that it cannot continue as it has because it would be highly unlikely to find someone to devote the kind of time he and others have to Paragon on a volunteer basis.
But that does not mean Shirar will never return.
Planning has been such a part of his life for the past few years, but after Gypsy, he will start to head into a life of uncertainty, except that he will live and study in Cincinnati.
The degree program might lead him to some of the nation's arts meccas, or he could return to the Bluegrass with the ability to take more solid posts and pursue a writing and arranging career.
"I really don't know what is going to happen next," Shirar says. "All I know is we have Gypsy in front of us."
He's not ready to move on just yet.