BWW Reviews: Eric Michael Gillett Lives Out His Sondheim Leading-Man Fantasy at the Laurie Beechman
The 2012 MAC Award winner for Outstanding Major Artist (Male) for his solo show Cast of Thousands, last week launched a new effort, cheekily titled I Won't Sing a Sondheim Song . . . Or Will I?, and everyone's first thought (at least those who didn't see him perform some of it at last season's Cabaret Cares benefits) was that Gillett's show would feature an eclectic mix of songs with a smattering of Sondheim. Instead, the show at the Laurie Beechman (sort of the home-away-from-home for anything Sondheim) turned out to be a diverse collection of the master's songs, minus the "Send in the Clowns" of the world. It's a cute but curious title, solely justified by Gillett's starting the set with songwriter Barry Kleinbort's too-cute-by-half tune of the same name (from the 1996 review Big City Rhythm, in which Gillette appeared) that features snippets of various Sondheim song lyrics and melody riffs. Once through the opening number, Gillett takes the audience on an entertaining, heartfelt, but somewhat indiscernible journey through his love of the songs and his brushes with Sondheim greatness (like when the living legend once leaned over to Gillett in a diner and told him his Sweet Smell of Success show t-shirt was really cool).
Gillett also related how he once covered all three of the male singing parts for the 2004 Sondheim flop, The Frogs, and offered three of the better songs from the show, including the clever "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience" and "Hades" right at the top, before following with the upbeat "Make the Most of Your Music" (from the British version of Follies). After the show, Gillett admitted that he finds "great humor in the lyric celebrating the performer in me, and I like sharing the idea that we can all make the most of what we have." Perhaps, then, Gillett should fully commit to the idea of his Sondheim homage by dropping the tongue-in-cheek current title and call the show Making the Most of My Music.
Gillett's medley from the show Saturday Night (the first for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics almost 60 years ago), featured "Isn't It" and the cabaret favorite "What More Do I Need?" While Eric's vocal was excellent on both, the latter was a bit underacted and could have used a bit more energy. A love ballad trilogy, including "Love, I Hear" (from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), "Loving You" (from Passion) and "So Many People" (from Saturday Night) was persuasively poignant (the latter featuring nice bass work from Matt Wigton). Then special quest, Broadway musical veteran and Gillett's friend Melanie Vaughan, joined Eric for a Follies section; a dramatic duet on "Too Many Mornings," before the two polished performers went jaunty and adorable on "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow." (Eighty-year-old Cookie Stark-a Gillett protégé from the popular Singers' Forum workshops where he guides budding cabaret performers-who recently staged her first Gillett-directed cabaret gig at the Laurie Beechman, also guested and was game and charming on "Broadway Baby" from Follies.)
On his vibrant rendition of "Being Alive" (from Company), Gillett clearly displays his well-honed mix of performing talents; the masterful stage presence from his years of experience as a circus ringmaster, his combination of an intimate cabaret voice with a Broadway stage belt, his obvious acting skill, and the sheer joy he takes in entertaining. But Gillett's tour de force in this show came after he told a fascinating story about how the first rehearsal sessions for the song "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park with George were held at the Laurie Beechman. Eric than delivered a stirring, spot-on take of "Hat" (for this number alone, it's worth seeing the show), during which one couldn't help but wonder if the song, indeed the entire show, is Gillett living out his fantasy of being the ultimate Sondheim leading man. . . not that there's anything wrong with that. (Click link below for Page 2)
Between performing, directing, vocal coaching, and teaching, Gillett is arguably the hardest working man in cabaret and certainly doesn't let any grass grow under his feet when it comes to staging shows. This Sondheim set comes less than two months after Gillett performed Nothing to Lose but Your Heart (co-starring La Tanya Hall) at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, and as the set moved along this reviewer couldn't help but think that as solid as it is, I Won't Sing . . . is still a work in progress and would have benefitted by a longer gestation period. That said, cabaret is about making a hat where there never was a hat. And Eric Michael Gillett makes a cabaret hat very well, indeed . . . even if he is a bit of a tease.
Musical Direction was ably provided by Jeff Cubeta.