Experiencing Eric Michael Gillett perform Stephen Sondheim, whom even the writer’s ardent fans (I among them) have heard interpreted ad nauseam, is not redundant. That’s high praise.
Friday night, someone at my table commented Gillett sings songs as if he’d written them. He seems to have an intimate relationship with every number, an investment in communicating so strong it seems like authorship. A man with the life experience to understand and the sensitivity to express a wide range of emotions, he’s also a talented actor who can embody characters and a singer with fullness of control and range few vocalists possess. The sum result is enormously affecting.
I Won’t Sing a Sondheim Song (Barry Kleinbort), a clever revue piece weaving together song titles like an acrostic, opens the evening with recognition, laughter, and misplaced comprehension. We think we’re in familiar territory, not so. The rarely heard Invocation from The Frogs follows, creating a perfect bridge without unnecessary patter (a signature of Gillett’s shows). Please don’t cough/It tends to throw the actors off… Don’t say “What?”/To every line you think you haven’t got…/ When there’s a pause, please/ Lots of applause, please… (deadpan Jeff Cubeta, musical director and accompanist, ably punctuates with comments).
The choice of material, with sources ranging from The Frogs, Singing Out Loud (an unproduced film), and the U.K. production of Follies to tunes with which a fairly well-versed audience could probably sing along, mixes the unexpected and well known. Hades, a wicked delight lyrically worthy of Cole Porter, is delivered by Gillett’s Pluto with consummate comic timing. The moving Ariadne (both The Frogs) breaks our hearts. Water Under the Bridge (Singing Out Loud), is rendered as an attempt at mournful healing. Make the Most of Your Music (U.K. Follies), a joyful, soaring anthem, encourages the singer’s voice to expand into the room with deep clarity and aplomb.
Gillett and Cubeta have woven together a sequence of love songs from Saturday Night, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Passion, and Follies whose proximity seems completely organic. Fluid, sympathetic arrangements carry our attention and emotions from one to the next. Gillett is like experiencing a strong partner on the dance floor, one just unquestioningly moves with him. Even the frequent vapidity of a song like Love I Hear (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), likely best remembered as executed by a very young Michael Crawford in the film, here becomes universal and surprisingly ageless.
Guest artist Cookie Stark effectively performs Broadway Baby (Follies) with careful phrasing and humorous, seemingly throw-away gestures-look out cat! Guest artist Melanie Vaughan sings two duets from Follies with her host. Vaughan’s strong soprano melds well with Gillett’s rich basso. Affection is palpable, gestures are cute.
The discovery that Finishing the Hat (Sunday in the Park with George) was initially tried out in rehearsal at the Beechman helps us momentarily imagine ghosts to which Gillett refers. His precise, but natural enunciation, endless breath, and viscerally personified passion make him a viable candidate for the role.
An exhilarating Being Alive (Company) sends up anticipated chills. The encore, Goodbye for Now (Reds), with lovely, hesitant, music-box piano, is like falling feathers.
Eric Michael Gillett is a truthful performer. This is a show you will not easily forget.
I Won’t Sing a Sondheim Song…or Will I?
Eric Michael Gillett
Guest Vocalists: Melanie Vaughan, Cookie Stark
Musical Director/Accompanist- Jeff Cubeta
Bass- Matt Wigton
The Laurie Beechman Theater
At The West Bank Café
407 West 42nd St. at 9th Avenue 212-695-6909
Fridays in April: 20th, 27th
Wednesdays in May: 9th & 23rd