Stop this train/I can’t take the speed it’s moving in/I know I can’t… (John Mayer/Pino Palladino)
Eric Michael Gillett, actor, teacher and one of our protean vocalists, had been hiding in plain sight when a succession of operatic calamities overwhelmed him. Decades of chronic arthritis pain and suicidal depression culminated in major surgery (there’s video!) followed swiftly by falling down a sizable flight of stairs and an apartment fire in which he lost everything. Trials of Job.
The artist took a ruthless look at his past and present returning to a genre he’d abandoned. Stop This Train was meant to be a one-off performed for friends and supporters. Response was so enthusiastic, Gillett agreed to repeat it. Writing the audacious show was, he tells me, an exorcism, performing it a joy. Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.
“What the Song Should Say,” one of several resonant choices from Gillett’s wonderful Craig Carnelia show, works well as an opening. Full-blooded rather than gentle, it begins the immersive experience with passion. Vocal is unconditional. There are no raw edges. Here I am for better or worse, he seems to be saying.
Black humor weaves throughout in fine thread. We’re told coping mechanisms taught him to live one moment at a time because one day is “too freakin’ much to ask,” that Gillett played loan applicant and bank officer with a close cousin rather than cops and robbers (you can guess which part he assumed.) “I moved to New York for Broadway, but stayed because Seamless and Grub Hub will deliver anything- but peace of mind.”
At age 4, he woke from a nightmare in tears sobbing that no one would marry/comfort him. Dense, rich piano accompaniment supports the title song. The vocalist’s expression is fearful, pained. One verse arrives in rhetorical parlando, the last a cry for help. Interestingly, raw tales of humiliating auditions as an older man precede those of early success.
The extraordinary “Clown” (Emeli Sande/Grant Mitchell/Shadid Khan) follows, an angry, open wound profoundly exposed. : I’d be smiling if I wasn’t so desperate/I’d be patient if I had the time/I could stop and answer all of your questions/As soon as I find out how I can move from the back of the line.
“I learned the truth of a show business cliché: Who is Eric Michael Gillett?, Get me Eric Michael Gillett, Get me an Eric Michael Gillett type, Get me a young Eric Michael Gillett, Who is Eric Michael Gillett?” The leitmotif of bitterness or clear-eyed vision?
There are stories about appearing in Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate (followed by professional rejection), Craig Carnelia/Marvin Hamlisch’s The Sweet Smell of Success (“the single most reviled show of the season”), and Stephen Sondheim’s short-lived revival of The Frogs.
From ‘Success, centered on the world of newspaper bottom-feeders, we hear a wrenching “At the Fountain,” gorgeous then, gorgeous now; from The Frogs, the delightfully arch “Hades,” replete with fey, balletic gestures and flashes of malevolence. Gillett is first and foremost an actor. He excavates material others just interpret. Time changes things, however. Craig Carnelia’s “Blood on The Moon,” proud, sad recollections of a Hollywood cowboy bit player, used to be heartbreaking. Tonight, it’s acerbic.
“The next few songs are dedicated to a life of failed relationships…I don’t want to be alone, but I’m too humiliated to get a cat.” “Nightingale” (Felicia Barton/Anne Preven/Matt Radosevich/Demi Lovato), accompanied by Mike Pettry on fine guitar, emerges hushed, plaintive. “Everything I Used to Be With You” palpably aches. (Mike Pettry- terrific song)
With Peter Mills’ “It’s Amazing the Things That Float,” he seems to reach a level of acceptance. The finely gauged, philosophical song trails sadness, but moves on. A kind of cleansing evidently took place. “I Miss the Mountains” (Tom Kitt/Brian Yorky) unfolds a brave, insightful admission of sometimes missing familiar highs and lows.- the devil one knows, perhaps. Hands at his sides, only the performer’s fingers move- they curl and at last, grasp the microphone stand.
Survival is sometimes astonishing to the survivors. Gillett starts to take risks “it’s worth it” including dispensing with anti-depressants. There’s a new home, new agents, new work. Tandem David Yazbeck songs, “Waving Through a Window”/”Answer Me” call, Here I am/Here I am/Where are you? ‘Echoes of the 4 year-old’s “who will comfort me.” Astonishing vocal control creates creamy octave changes, seamless advances and retreats. Gillett can still be thrilling. Material is eclectic, precise in its intention.
“Without a Stitch On” (Mike Pettry) finds the vocalist pugnaciously manifesting defiance against the status quo. Arms spread, grinning widely, he (metaphorically) lifts his feet off brakes careening into the future.
We close with a subdued “Secret of Happiness” (Paul Gordon), Pettry on guitar. Meant to be sung by a 16 year-old girl, it’s pristine. Simple truths suggest beleaguered gratitude. One can’t help but wish the masterful performer well. A dynamic, deeply personal and tough show.
Caveat: Gillett’s curious prologue, taking phone photos of the audience, singing an excerpt from a later song so those attending could tape then put away their tech, was incomprehensible to me.
Photos by Tricia Baron
Eric Michael Gillett: Stop This Train
MD/Piano Mike Pettry
November 21, 2019
The Laurie Beechman Theater in The West Bank Café
407 West 42nd Street