BWW Review: Ethan Slater Charms Fans at 54 Below
There was no announcement, no "Ladies & Gentlemen please welcome to the stage..." nothing but a mildly awkward moment as the stage at Feinstein's/54 Below began to populate with performers. Or were they technicians, roadies setting up for the show?
Difficult to tell here. But in this moment, as Ethan Slater and co. stumbled onto the stage, gathering and passing back and forth instruments, mics, music stands and wires in what looked to be a haphazard manner, the Tony Award nominee's debut solo show casually, and rather amusingly, began. Slater in his hiking boots, jeans, and rumpled, untucked pale blue button-down greeted the audience warmly and the young skewed crowd responded in kind.
After his quick, almost shy "hi" to his people, he launched into his first number, "Alaska", a song he wrote from a musical he is writing called End Of The World. The lively rockabilly, folksy downbeats of "Alaska", and the tune that is married to his lyrics about a single father telling his young son what life holds in store for them, had the audience swaying and tapping tables immediately.
With a voice that is a clear, sharp-toned, range-y sound that fit perfectly the barn-stomping style of his music, it was clear that Mr. Slater is no small talent and that he is more than an interpreter of other peoples words and music - he is a fine composer and a terrific musician, playing no less than 3 different guitars throughout the evening.
When the song ended, he fumbled with the music stand containing his setlists and notes, a task he unashamedly performed throughout the evening. Switching guitars, he told us of his upbringing and how he came to be drawn to his style of music. His mother sadly passed when he was just 7, and yet still imbued in him a love of folk music, musicals, and "Jewish Folk Dancing" as typified by her original Hebrew Cast Album of Hair. With this, the audience got the idea of that which is in store: a casual evening of listening to a fine garage band about to make it big but playing one last neighborhood set. This is possibly a performance more suited to a place like Rockwood Music Hall downtown than to the wood-paneled, gold-inlaid Feinstein's/54 Below, but the uptown types like to take off their shoes and hoot-it-up too.
Slater is not a performer who can easily charm the audience as himself - not a "skill" he has practiced, so he meanders through his setlist in the way the verse lyrics of his original songs seem to wander about without verse structure. Seeing the words on the printed page alone would be the only way to determine if they are poetic blank verse. The lyrics have meaning and relate the messages and circumstances of the songs, but he leaves most of the poesy to the melodic tone poems of his musical notes, rhythms, and phrases, and then hits you with some catchy rhymes in the chorus portions. What makes this exceptional is that it is intentionally with music that he expresses real need and real heart.
The body of the evening consisted of Slater singing songs he has written in that Nouveau-Folk-Rock style that is more and more prevalent in the American Stage Musicals of today. When he side trips to his idol, Paul Simon, or gives his rendition of "Happiness" from "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown" (the 4th grade musical where he met his keyboardist: Marco Paguia) or treats his audience to what they came for with his final number, Sponge Bob's "(Just A) Simple Sponge" he does so with simple honesty and that ginger-next-door accessibility that made him shine in his under the sea Broadway debut.
Given fine support by his garage-bandmates of on and Off-Broadway theatrical veterans: Lilli Cooper (Vocals), Nick Blaemire (Guitar, Vocals), Ari Brand (Bass, Vocals), and Tony Award® nominee Mike Dobson (drums), The evening comes off as real and creative entertainment happening totally off the cuff. Ethan Slater does not know how to charm his audience. It happens naturally. He just can't help it.