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BWW Reviews: THOMAS HONECK Explores the Meaning of Life, Death, and Family During Intensely Personal Show at The Duplex

Clad in all black and wearing a Dia de los Muertos mask, the pianist takes his seat. The cellist follows. From the back of the theater, the Grim Reaper wearing his black cape, white mask, and carrying his trademark scythe, seems to float through the audience, reminiscent of the way a priest enters a cathedral to celebrate a mass. Accompanied by Elton John's requiem-like instrumental, "Funeral For a Friend" (from the 1973 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road), the beginning of Thomas Honeck's show at the Duplex, Dancing with Death, starts as a macabre ritual.

Honeck sings his first two numbers--"Come Little Children" and "Don't Pay the Ferryman"--still in the guise of the Reaper, complete with skeletal gloves, and you immediately notice he isn't using a microphone. His voice is unaltered by reverb or other enhancing effects, sounds pure and direct and projects well in this intimate theater. These initial songs are instructions to the audience--the participants in the ritual--like admonitions to come join, but beware. Honeck's plaintive rendition of "Ferryman" induces goose bumps. I realized I was along for the ride, completely prepared for my transformation.

Many folks in the New York cabaret orbit know Thomas Honeck as the booking manager of the Duplex Cabaret Theater or as a long-standing member of the MAC board. Before mounting his current show, he had taken a seven-year long hiatus from performing, so most people have not experienced his dynamic performer persona that runs counter to his usual reserved demeanor. Thomas tells the audience that when he was young, he thought age 50 would be a good time to "check out" . . . until he recently actually turned 50. Realizing he had a lot more life left in him, he was inspired to mark the occasion by creating Dancing with Death. He originally produced the show in May 2013, and has since performed it four times.

After leaving the stage to lose the Reaper costume (as the band plays the Frank Sinatra standard, "My Way"), Honeck reappears, much less frightening and wearing more traditional cabaret garb: Nice slacks and a lavender button down shirt. He transitions into a revival preacher, telling the Duplex congregation about his long-standing fascination with the mystery of death. Tonight, he explains, he will play in the shadows, exploring the concept of death in order to bring life into full view. Death, he testifies, is a seductress, a "Lady in Red," (song spoiler alert) beckoning, teasing, tempting him to come closer. As he learned from his Shamanic studies, death is an important guide, reminding him that life is short, and helping him to make his choices accordingly.

During stories about his youth, Honeck talks about his family's stoicism, which taught him to be an emotionally "self-contained unit," all the while wondering if his lack of emotion simply rendered him a sociopath. He relays harrowing yet hilarious tales of his childhood dalliances with a cadaver, a broken leg, pneumonia, and arrogant doctors. Honeck's script (with help from director Lisa Moss, who was nominated for a 2014 BroadwayWorld Award for her work on this show) is terrifically imagistic and clever: Part sermon, part TED talk, part Moth story. Beneath the philosophical discussion of life and death, one senses that the show is really a love letter to his parents. The family ethic may have been to keep one's emotions close to the vest, but clearly they expressed deep love toward one another in many poignant ways.

The audience seems immersed in Honeck's experiences, frequently gasping or dabbing tears, and exclaiming "Oh my God!" Incorporating much spoken text, sometimes interspersed between verses of a song, Honeck's show has more in common with a theater piece than a concert; the songs are inextricably woven into the texture of the rich, vivid narrative. Thomas grips us with a multitude of stories in which life and death hang in the balance. The intensity can be draining for a flash, and then you are back to being riveted.

Musical Director Andrew Sotomayor's straightforward arrangements suit Honeck's voice and purpose well and Jordan Jancz's cello contributes warmth and depth to the music. While Honeck possesses a capable voice, his attempts to sustain big notes at the end of a couple of numbers are artistically unnecessary and vocally out of his wheelhouse. The songs are powerful enough without needing to be bigger. He is able to convey meaning and emotion without a lot of fuss. Almost all pop tunes, in this context the songs have the pared down feel of folk or traditional. Particularly moving are Thomas' renditions of Cat Stevens songs from the film Harold and Maude, which Thomas tells us is one of his favorite movies. Makes sense, as the 1971 cult classic is a dark, existential romantic comedy in which a young man, obsessed with death, meets an unlikely old lady soul mate (both crashing a funeral for kicks) who teaches him how to live life to the fullest. The show is beautifully yet simply lit by Lisa Moss, the perfect backdrop for Honeck's captivating characters to command your attention.

Through Dancing with Death, Thomas Honeck elevates the genre of cabaret by taking a sophisticated, personal look at a juicy, difficult topic. Despite the ostensibly grim material, the show is cathartic and uplifting. He reminds us that none of us is getting out of here alive, and to ask ourselves whether we're living every day as if it were our last.

Thomas Honeck dances with death again on January 22, 2015 at 7pm, at the Duplex Cabaret Theater, 61 Christopher Street, NYC. For reservations, call: 212-255-5438

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Remy Block (performer, writer) is a Brooklyn, NY based singer, writer and educator. Recent cabaret performances include her new solo show On a Lonely Road…Travelin’ (read more...)