Brett Ryback Exposes The Kid with the Keys at Sterling's Upstairs at the Federal
On Sunday, September 16, actor/singer/composer Brett Ryback brought his immense talent to Sterling's Upstairs at the Federal. His new show The Kid with the Keys, premiering here, not only alludes to his dexterity on the keyboard but goes out on a limb to express his feelings about the theme of his show. Promising an elegant evening of troublemaking with songs from young contemporary composers like himself: Joe Iconis, Ryan Scott Oliver and Daniel Mate, Ryback presented many of his own compositions, which concern growing up in an ultra messy world. The keys? Well, maybe he has the answers to the problems.
Ryback considers himself first and foremost a composer, not a songwriter, and has created complete scores for Liberty Inn: The Musical, the book for Darling (the family from Peter Pan), and The Tavern Keeper's Daughter. One of his most recent projects has been putting music to Kids' Rights, Uncorrected Writing, a series of letters written by children in 4th-6th grades (ages 10-12) from all over the country, whose powerful insight and voice about conflict cannot be denied. I am mentioning all of this within this review because some of these musicalized letters form the substance of Ryback's show, accompanied by slide projections. Nobody sees things as truthfully as kids do. "Out of the mouths of babes" clearly signifies the depth of their comprehension, as in "Changed Future". There is great desperation in the subject matter, and the grave heady tone of Ryback's music seems to match it quite effectively. Darwin Deez's "The Bomb Song" is another typical example of depressing matters, "the sky is green/say you love me now". We may hate to be reminded, but these are issues we must face.
Ryback opens and closes the gig with pieces 360 degrees away from all of this: Chopin's "Waltz in D-Flat Major" to start and Tim Minchin's hysterically funny "Inflatable You" about sex with an inflatable toy doll, to close. He possesses a deliciously wicked sense of humor which is not used nearly enough. My one constructive comment about the evening is that it is so heavy, so serious, it needs more comic relief, more spontaneity. One comment of Ryback's sticks in my brain: He's "all business up front, all party in the back"; maybe more playful, more naughty and less business-like should be on tap. As is, there are wonderful moments and some engaging numbers. Joe Iconis' "Blue Hair" is delightful, showing the crazy things kids do to get attention. Sondheim's "Children Will Listen" from Into the Woods is another more familiar highlight that he essays beautifully with ukelele in hand. And he really engaged me to listen. "Guide them and step away/they will glisten" stood out for me this time, as if I had never heard those lyrics before. Ryback's banter about Peter Pan, never growing old, and "be who you are here and now" is great advice for anyone young or old. I also love his "Song for You and Me" in which he expresses that "everyone deserves to be loved". His music set to kids' "Advice for Grown-Ups" is an undeniable treat as well. There is terrific accompaniment throughout the 75 minute set from Mike Sawitzke on guitar and Max Mueller on cello. Oh, did I mention Ryback plays a mean piano?
A unique show from prolific talent Brett Ryback! If he further develops the lighter side of The Kid with the Keys, he's got something extra special.