BWW Review: WE'RE ONLY ALIVE FOR A SHORT AMOUNT OF TIME at Goodman Theatre

BWW Review: WE'RE ONLY ALIVE FOR A SHORT AMOUNT OF TIME at Goodman Theatre

It's not uncommon for artists to create beauty from the pain of their own pasts, but few do it as bravely and poignantly as David Cale in WE'RE ONLY ALIVE FOR A SHORT AMOUNT OF TIME. Staged in The Goodman Theatre's largest venue and programmed as the subscription season opener, this 90-minute, one-man show packs an emotional punch in the most understated of ways.

On a nearly bare stage, Cale plays himself and each member of his family as he shares the story of his turbulent childhood in industrial, crime-ridden Luton, England. With a conversational, self-deprecating tone, punctuated with dry British wit, he establishes a natural connection with the audience.

We follow Cale through his adolescent obsessions with breeding birds and with the music of Liza Minnelli. His shy, technically minded younger brother, Simon, makes several appearances, and we meet the boys' father, an enigmatic, cold man who nevertheless is portrayed with some sympathy.

But this family tale is primarily a redemptive effort on behalf of Cale's long-suffering mother, Barbara, a woman who shared her elder son's artistic bent but whose life circumstances quenched her dreams. This is equally her story and Cale's: a middle-aged woman facing her own regrets and unfulfilled longings, and a youth coming to terms with personal tragedy and finding his way in the world. The genuine love between mother and son is the most moving element of the show.

Interspersed with the narrative are a dozen original songs, with lyrics by Cale and music co-written with composer Matthew Dean Marsh. Drawing on several genres, from folk to film scores, Marsh's arrangements fully exploit the warm, mellow sounds of his quintet: piano, viola, cello, harp, trumpet, and clarinet. The musicians sit on stage and are dimly lit with soft hues only when they play, providing a visual backdrop as well as musical accompaniment for Cale's performance. The lyrics and Cale's vocal style vary according to the character he portrays in each song, but the words are uniformly poetic and reflect his decades of experience as a singer-songwriter.

Despite the sobering memories that Cale recounts, this musical memoir is ultimately a message of hope. In one touching scene, his mother looks a teenaged Cale in the eye and says, "One day, you're going to realize the potential in me that never saw the light of day." And clearly, he has done his mother proud.

WE'RE ONLY ALIVE FOR A SHORT AMOUNT OF TIME plays through October 21 at The Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL 60601. Tickets are available at 312.443.3800 or goodmantheatre.org.

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From This Author Emily McClanathan

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