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CABARET LIFE NYC: Steven Schalchlin Isn't Saccharine During Emotionally Enriching Show at the Metropolitan Room

Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks

By their very intimate nature, most cabaret shows are intensely personal affairs and within these shows there are very emotional moments that can literally make you cry. Since my eyes can well up at the drop of an octave, I've often reached for the cocktail napkin when a cabaret singer connects with a lyric--whether one of their own or another writer's--in a sensitively transcendent way. Ann Hampton Callaway can make me tear up at least once per show (the song she wrote for Barbra Streisand's wedding to James Brolin, "I've Dreamed of You," gets me all farklempt) and Dana Lorge's poignant rendition of Francesca Blumenthal's "Lies of Handsome Men" is simply to cry for.

But it's rare to encounter an entire cabaret offering that is so personal, sensitive, and emotionally compelling on a number of levels as to leave you feeling satisfyingly drained by the end of it. When a show can do that without a hint of sadness, self-indulgence, or sickeningly sweet sentimentality, what you've experienced is nothing short of a dramatic triumph.

That's pretty much what singer/songwriter Steve Schalchlin (pronounced SHACK-lin) accomplished on October 27 with his new show at the Metropolitan Room. While it was billed as a presentation celebrating the release of his 13-song CD, Tales From the Bonus Round, and his 60th birthday, it was so much more than that. It was also a show about fear, fortitude, anxiety, anguish, compassion, courage, and love, all expressed in poetic and often clever lyrics and melodies ranging from uplifting gospel to Billy Joel-sounding mid-tempo pop to sensitive ballads, many colored with musical theater undertones. At their core, most of the songs conveyed what Schalchlin has thought, felt and experienced since early 1993, when he was diagnosed with AIDS, launched one of the first internet diaries/blogs (in early 1996), stared death in the face on a daily basis, took an experimental AIDS drug (Crixivan), and ultimately--almost miraculously--regained his health and career. When you listen to his songs, it's not hard to believe Schalchlin when he claims that during those scary days, writing music and the "healing properties of piano vibrations" also helped save his life. And the 17 years since are what he calls his "Bonus Round."

The Metropolitan Room was certainly vibrating with the buzz of a full house as Schalchlin, a Baptist preacher's son, took to the piano with Bill Goffi on guitar, Stephen Elkins on percussion, and James Lawless (who Schalchlin claimed he had just recently met on the internet) on bass. Schalchlin's life partner of 28 years, the acclaimed actor/singer/cabaret performer Jim Brochu, beamed with pride from a middle booth, his neatly coiffed white hair seeming to shine a spotlight onto Steve and his keyboard. Schalchlin may not possess a beautiful voice, but it's powerful and melodious enough to serve his own songs well. He opened with a passionate pop ballad, "The Secret of the Great Big Hall," which opines that the secret to art is not what one sees in the painting on the wall, but the love that the painter has brought to the work. I'd heard Schalchlin do this song a couple of times in variety shows and open mics and it had much more resonance in this context, as did many of the other songs in the set. One of best lyrics came four songs in on the ballad "So Many Days In An Hour," which Schalchlin describes in the show's notes as a song about "a secret tryst and a desire for so much more." Anyone who has ever been on the obsessive side of a love affair could identify with a passage that says:

A hug will be like our first date
A kiss, the day we fell in love
Each article of clothing like peeling off a decade
Like watching lifetimes from above
As the seconds tick by so very quickly
I try to make them flower
Only so many days in an hour . . .

During the first two years of Schalchlin's battle with AIDS, he wrote many songs about his experience, which ultimately became a musical--with a book by Brochu--called The Last Session. The show opened off-Broadway in 1997 to some rave reviews and a New York Drama League Best Musical Nomination (it was recently revived in London off-West End). One of the coolest songs from that score is "Somebody's Friend," a country-pop style melody that belies the intense story of an AIDS patient's quest to get his hands on an experimental drug. One could totally sympathize with Schalchlin's desperation and frustration when during the Met Room show he delivered the lyric: Somebody's friend took a trip to Chinatown . . . Somebody's friend got secret herbs . . . Somebody's friend got cured of HIV . . . But when I ask if I could meet somebody's friend . . . They say it's not my friend . . . It's a friend of somebody's friend . . . (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)

But probably the most compelling and powerful song in the set came next with the moving and self-revelatory "At A Hospice, In The Atrium," which is not only about Steve's actual experience of what he calls "a harrowing and emotional afternoon singing in an unusual place," but is also about the true meaning of performing music for the love of it and as a gesture of healing, and not about doing it for money, approval or glory. You couldn't even hear a glass clink in the Met Room as Schalchlin tenderly told his tale (click on YouTube video below to hear the song cut):

At a hospice, in the atrium
I sang a little show
For the nurses in their station
And the patients in their rooms
At a hospice, in the atrium
I sang a little show . . .

. . . Now I'm not the type to shun applause
Or turn down nice awards
But a stadium or a concert hall of people on their feet

In my mind will never compete
With the hospice, in the atrium
Where I played a little show . . .

As a TV sports reporter offering highlights of a blowout game might say, "You could have turned your sets off right there," and this would have qualified as a wonderful show, but there were still seven songs plus an encore to go. In the second half, Schalchlin offered three tunes from his newest show, New World Waking, which he calls a "choral/orchestral song cycle for peace," and which made its world debut in 2008 at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco starring the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. (Steve was inspired to develop this show after the pop star George Michael flew him to Olympia, Washington to play John Lennon's "Imagine" Piano in the front yard of a bisexual boy who committed suicide after a gay bashing episode.) "Franco Ate the Paperwork" [as in the Spanish dictator] is about the insanity of violence, hence, the lyrics are kind of insane and sound like something that might have come from the fevered brain of Randy Newman. The show finale, "My Rising Up" is a rousing Gospel and audience sing-along (and certainly was at the Met Room) from New World Waking that must be a big hit among the parishioners at Christ Church in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where Schalchlin serves as composer in residence. They likely also raise the roof on another Gospel-tinged audience pleaser, "Lazarus Come Out," a lyric that is one of Schalchlin's strongest autobiographical statements, as well a personal and political one:

I pray for all the children
Whose lives are cloaked in shame
I pray for all whose hatred
Drives them to pointless blame
I pray for greater courage
To stand and face the crowd
I made a sacred promise
To sing this love out loud
Time to come out! Lazarus come out!
Into the light! Into the light of day!
Time to come out! Lazarus come out!
Time to come out, Into the Light of day!

As if all that wasn't enough to leave you feeling like an emotional wreck, Schalclin upped the ante with his encore, inviting Brochu (left in photo, top) onstage for a duet on "How Do You Fall Back In Love?" a humorous and heartfelt ballad about the breakup and subsequent reconciliation of their relationship that they introduced in their award-winning 2002 production, The Big Voice: God or Merman?

How do you fall back in love?
How do you reconnect what's disconnected?
Unsay things you never meant
Do you pray for miracles from above?
How do you fall back in love?

Steve Schalchlin's sincere and sensitive show made me cry with joy. Would someone please, please, please pass me a cocktail napkin already?

The next performance of Tales From the Bonus Round is scheduled for January 15, 2014, 7pm at the Metropolitan Room, 34 W 22nd St, New York, NY 10010. Call: 212-206-0440 for reservations.

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From This Author - Stephen Hanks