BWW Review: Ryan McCartan Stuns Crowd at 54 Below
Last night, at his Feinstein's/54 Below debut, Ryan McCartan's audience was shocked. Shocked by how good he was, shocked by how open he was, shocked by how honest he was. Even fans of the young musician could be overheard, during the applause, extolling how amazing he was. Guests who had, previously, not known of his work, shook their heads in disbelief. At one point, at a nearby table, Laverne Cox could be seen, her hand over her heart, tears filling her eyes.
What did Ryan McCartain do to shock so many people and make Laverne Cox cry?
He brought his truth to his cabaret show.
In life, truth is of paramount importance. If you are a film actor, people can see if you are being untruthful on a huge screen, in photographs people can see if you are being false by enlargement, and in cabaret, people can see if you aren't being true, up close and personal. Ryan McCartan has a story to tell, and it's personal, and he opted to tell the truth about things one might hesitate to tell a therapist, to a room full of people, while sitting in a spotlight. Don't worry, Ryan McCartan hasn't broken any commandments, all he has done is live his life, dream his dream, get his heart stomped, survive and come back stronger. And now he is sharing his story, using music and his own inimitable voice, in ways beautiful and bold, and all true to the man he is.
McCartan strolls casually through a sea of tables, smiling at the 54 Below guests on his way to the stage, just a guy in jeans and a slightly rumpled shirt, no surprise to a crowd of people who weren't expecting a 26-year-old in a tux. Once on the stage and in his seat with his guitar, the entire picture comes into view: there is no band. This is a guy in jeans and a slightly rumpled shirt with a guitar and a looper, and he is going to be the 2019 version of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, a one-man band making all the sounds himself, the miracle of modern music. Cool.
It's an audacious choice for McCartan, starting his show with a ballad, but it's true to who he is and what he wants to say, and with a voice that immediately grabs you so hard your jaw drops, he brings the ballad "Someone to Fall Back On" to you with clarity and purity, both of sound and heart, letting you know that he and Jason Robert Brown belong together, the way Bernadette Peters and Sondheim do, or Liza and Kander & Ebb. At the end of the song, Ryan McCartan has made it crystal clear that this is not going to be your average night of cabaret.
"What you see is what you get," informs the former Fiyero, as he explains what a looper is and how the electronic device will take sounds his guitar makes and create an entire band for each number, with him manipulation the buttons in just the right ways, his cheeky and quirky personality winning over every person within eye or earshot. McCartan's ability to relax into the moment and jovially goof off is indicative of one who is either unable to hide who he is, or one got tired of all the bullshit and is, now, living his best life. For the hour that he jockeyed back and forth between musical theater like Heathers The Musical or Between The Lines and music made famous by people like Brittany Howard and The Lumineers, McCartan shows himself to be musically wise beyond his years, and personally on a path to enlightenment. He hesitates to share nothing with his audience, speaking freely about the highs and lows of being a performing artist, and the lessons learned from his parents (both in the house to hear his comments) that kept him afloat when he was adrift. Stories about the disappointments and heartbreak of his early years in show business are populated with optimism and the philosophy that "everything happens for a reason" and the audience learns what Ryan learned along the way: he is strong enough to overcome anything. His is one of the most refreshing and engaging personalities one is likely to encounter on a stage or on the streets of New York, as he appears to flip-flop from being the coolest dude in town, and biggest dork around. His silliness is possibly the most likable thing about him, but his honesty is probably the most admirable quality he possesses, but then his musical talent is definitely the most crush-worthy quality he has. You know what? He's just that guy... the one everyone loves. Your nieces and nephews want to play with him, your sister wants to date him, your mom wants to make him dinner and your dad wants to watch sports with him, and all your friends want him to come to their parties. That's Ryan McCartan for you.
As Mr. McCartan opens up his personality to the willing audience, his throat opens up golden musical radiance the like of a great pop singer, nay, a great pop star. How this voice hasn't landed Ryan McCartan on the radio, on the charts, on the concert circuit is a mystery. With each number, McCartan shows a different side of his personality and his musicality. It's like looking at the different facets of a diamond through a loupe. When performing songs that are more personal, like "Freeze Your Brain," the song he sang in Heathers The Musical, he smirks and winks at the audience, whereas the musical monologue "Something to Hold On To" from Between the Lines is performed with all of his focus drilled into the back wall of 54 Below. McCartan knows exactly when to relate to the people, so as to draw them in, and when to shut them out so that they can be observers, watching the story through the window of the fourth wall. In a two-song set from The Rocky Horror Show, he chooses one song to flirt with the audience (while simultaneously flirting with duet partner, the divine Brittney Johnson), but the second becomes a character-driven piece during which the audience is not allowed in, until the last moment when we see the character drop and Ryan come back, all evidenced by the return of that cheeky half-smile and mischievous twinkle in the eyes. His is a magical, mystical, musical journey upon which he brings his delighted audience, roaring with laughter and screaming their praise.
Ms. Johnson is not the only guest artist at McCartan's New York City solo cabaret debut, for he is aided by Scotland Pa star Taylor Iman Jones on an extremely enjoyable "Can't Sleep Love" and by his sister, Alison McCartan, for a really personal duet on his encore song (Ms. McCartan will not be appearing at Ryan's subsequent shows, sadly) and both women are blessed with musical gifts and a visibly deep friendship with the McCartan, who currently stars with Ms. Jones in Scotland PA. The three women joining McCartan on the stage are all welcome and enjoyable guest artists, but the evening truly belongs to the lanky and genial young man with the one-man-band machine, a fact that is never more obvious than on his final three songs of the set. The first of these exceptional performances is Brittany Howard's "Don't Wanna Fight," a number during which every single member of the audience, from the young to the old, whatever their skin color, whatever their sex, was in the moment, moving their bodies in time with the music, some with eyes closed in a private reverie, others with slack jaws, gazing up at matinee idol McCartan. This is the One. This is the song McCartan needs to record and release because it's the one that will put him on the pop star charts. It is a riveting moment in his show, made even greater by the follow-up song, McCartan's self-penned "Walk Away," a haunting piece that further demonstrates the deep ocean that is his talent. It's a one-two punch of grown-up music with gravitas, proving him to be a man with a musical mission, not a boy on a Disney show. This is the day Ryan McCartan grows up in show business.
His final songs of the evening (one being the show encore, because in cabaret there's always an encore) are not original songs - they are two of the most famous songs of all time. They were made famous by two of the most famous female entertainers of all time. Women worry about whether or not they should sing them, men seldom ever try. None of this phases Ryan McCartan, a brave soul if ever there was one; and with one final story about things he has overcome in his life, he takes on these two epic opera and he wins. Hands down, he wins.
The real winners at Ryan McCartan's cabaret debut, though, are the people in the audience who are given the joy and the honor to hear his music, to listen to his tale, and to learn from Ryan, a man who leads by example by showing all that life is an occasion, one to which he has risen.
Follow Ryan McCartan on Twitter @ryanmccartan and Instagram @mccarya
Photos by Stephen Mosher