BWW Review: David Cale's Survival Song, WE'RE ONLY ALIVE FOR A SHORT AMOUNT OF TIME
The last time a well-known actor not especially noted for singing graced a major New York stage with a one-person autobiographical musical that focused on personal tragedy, it was Suzanne Somer's unmissably jaw-dropping narcissistic spectacle, THE BLONDE IN THE THUNDERBIRD. But fear not, playgoers, for while David Cale does provide quite a few original ditties to augment his childhood memoir, WE'RE ONLY ALIVE FOR A SHORT AMOUNT OF TIME, his not-quite-Sinatra-level vocals are way more suited for this captivating presentation than a more melodious songbird's trill.
Birds are, in fact, an integral part of the both plot and imagery. As the audience enters The Public's Anspacher Theater, they can see several empty bird cages hanging over the mostly bare playing area designed by Kevin Depinet. As the 90-minute piece progresses, the sense that these empty cages represent a kind of escape increases.
When the storyteller first enters, he's a cappella singing a little ballad called "Canada Geese," where he compares himself with the bird who has fallen astray from the organized formations of the flock.
The lyrics throughout the show are Cale's and the music is a collaboration between he and music director/arranger Matthew Dean Marsh, who plays piano upstage, joined by members of his six-piece band,
Next comes a comical number about his hometown, Luton, voted "Ugliest City In England." ("Every day it feels like winter, / Mocked in plays by Harold Pinter.") It's here where, as a child, Cale set up his own bird and animal hospital in a backyard shed, where he would care for unfortunate creatures he'd come across on his daily walks. Breeding birds became his specialty after convincing his parents to buy him an inexpensive aviary.
His father, Ron Egleton, and his mother Barbara reluctantly got married when David was conceived. The boy's mob-connected paternal grandfather Jimmy dominated the fortunes of family life, having everyone work for his hat factory. But David's mother sees the more soulful side of her son, as she observes him passionately belting out Petula Clark's new hit, "Downtown," and selections from Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. Eventually, Liza Minnelli becomes a symbol of their bond.
The abuse, the horrific act of violence and the family connection with an infamous pair are all plot points best introduced by the author. But, as directed by Robert Falls, even though Cale tells the story through monologues as himself and as the family members involved, he is not reliving it; rather recalling it from within the emotional safety net of having survived. And if singing served as a security blanket to get through it all, well, it doesn't have to be pretty to be quite lovely.