By Kevin Scott Hall
"Careless Rhapsody: An Evening Dedicated to the Lyrics of Lorenz Hart"
54 Below – February 4, 7, 26, 27
Cabaret favorite and multitasker Eric Michael Gillett has come up with yet another new show, this time celebrating the lyrics of Lorenz Hart. Gillett and his director, Arthur Masella, succeed in encompassing as much of the Hart catalogue as possible—both familiar and lesser known gems—by smartly grouping several of the songs together under basic categories such as Friends and Lovers, Falling in Love, New Love, The Heart, and Heartache; this allows Gillett to sing several songs in a row, without patter, and present the broader themes of Hart’s work. In his introduction, in fact, Gillett tells us that he will not give much biography on Hart, and will let the words of the songs speak for themselves. (The composer for all songs in this review, and all songs but one in the show, is Richard Rodgers.)
Gillett's impeccable diction and excellent intonation make his voice a perfect vessel for delivering lyrics: every word can be understood and the musicality is never in question. Add to it musical director Don Rebic's clever arrangements and medleys and bassist Dick Sarpola's spot-on contributions, and the entire piece from beginning to end is an impressive feat on a technical level.
However, Gillett too often takes the easy route on acting choices, which is a shame because over the years he has shown himself to be accomplished on all counts. For example, too many times he indicates his emotions and intentions with obvious gestures: while singing about his heart, he puts his hand on his heart; when singing about the stars, he looks up at the ceiling. (Watch people in conversation; they don't really do that most of the time.) Also, he has a habit of eyeing and pointing at audience members when delivering a line (the woman at the front table almost became his unwitting acting partner the night I attended), which is not the best choice and gives his delivery a Vegas-like sheen.
In introducing the Falling in Love segment, he refers to the title of the show, "Careless Rhapsody," and says, "We've all fallen in love carelessly, but that can mean either with abandon or without caution." Well put, but I felt that he is telling us, not showing us. Gillett conveys a world-weary bitterness on the unhappy songs, but why not reach for rage or revenge or despair—a stronger emotion that would give the interpretations and, thus, the show more of an edge?
Nevertheless, Gillett has the skill to pull off some remarkable moments. When he settles down and finds a focal point on the well-known "Blue Moon," his intense longing can be felt in those opening lines. His near-operatic rendition of "My Heart Stood Still" is definitive: the patrician-looking Gillett is believable as one whose heart's domain was in Iceland…until that one special person had the power to change his life with a look. The skillful juxtaposition of those opposing sides is truly moving.
Although comedy is not his métier, the combination of Gillett's emphasis on the words and the genius of the words, themselves, make for a can't-lose proposition on a few of the uptempo humorous songs. Looking like a twisted game show host, Gillett's "Everything I've Got" has a bit of mischief to it. Recalling—and longing for—the insanity that love once brought, "I Wish I Were in Love Again" becomes Gillett's middle-aged man's lament. Finally, Gillett brings up a trio of delightful female backup singers (Eva Kantor, Bailey Means, Marissa Mulder) to energetically help him close the show with "Sing for Your Supper," Gillett's favorite of Hart's songs.
In closing, Gillett reminds us that Lorenz Hart, like himself, was not a perfect person, but that Hart was able to pour out his heart onto the page. If Gillett would risk bleeding a little more, this evening celebrating Hart's songs (heart's songs) would be great instead of good. For now, he's playing it emotionally safe too much of the time.