David Ballard

October 7, 2013 | By | Add a Comment

“Having It All”

Don’t Tell Mama  –  September 24, 25, October 11, 12

David BallardIn his show “Having It All,” David Ballard and his director, Tanya Moberly, count on the musical selections to carry their narrative. After the opening song, Kate Bush’s inscrutable “Suspended in Gaffa,” Ballard informs us that the show is about a character that is somewhat like himself and possibly somewhat like us, too. There’s no more spoken content in the show until near the end, when Ballard thanks his collaborators and his audience. This format is similar to the one used by Moberly in her Don’t Tell Mama show that revisited the album Barbra Joan Streisand—except here the songs have been chosen based on thematic content. It’s really more of a song cycle in recital than a traditional cabaret act.

It may be hard, at first, to follow Ballard’s loose narrative because we don’t know who the character is, but that’s appropriate because at this stage the character doesn’t know who he is either. He’s a boy piecing together his identity—including his sexual identity. The songs gradually begin to give us more clues about him—more clues, anyway, than that Kate Bush song did. (Where the hell is Gaffa?, I wondered—only to learn in a post-show Google search that the lyric refers to gaffer tape. But of course.)

Looking out toward the audience with searching eyes, Ballard sings in a clear, plaintive tenor. His voice frequently veers upward to a falsetto that sometimes sounds squeaky and sometimes suggests the weeping sound of a musical saw. All this serves to underscore the character’s youthful vulnerability and uncertainty about himself and the world. Musical director and pianist Garrit Guadan joins in vocally at points, often with his own high-pitched counterpoint. Guadan is a supportive presence onstage generally, and he and Ballard have good teamwork, especially on the more melodically complex (and less rhythm-driven) numbers.

Ballard stations himself at different places on the stage during the performance, emblematic, it seems, of someone trying out new places to fit in. The frequent repositioning also helps—in the absence of between-songs patter—to provide transition markers.

With “Stranger in This World” (by Boy George and a team of co-composers, from Taboo) we witness the character’s frustration about conforming to gender norms. “Someone make me a star as I sure as hell can’t be a man,” Ballard sings. Lennon and McCartney’s “Your Mother Should Know” (during which Ballard flings a feather boa about) and Jillette Johnson’s “Cameron” touch on cross-dressing. The tender, erotically charged “Fieldtrip Buddy” (Matt Alber) deals with the youthful longing for same-sex touch.

In the middle of Adam Mathias’s “February Night,” about two friends sharing a bed, Ballard sings the line “The Smirnoff lets you do as you please,” and it’s a fuller, more assertive voice than we’ve heard so far. All the longing and aching give way to sexual fulfillment, however furtive and fleeting. From this point on in the show, the nature of the protagonist’s self-discovery changes.

Later songs in the show concentrate on the difficulties of maintaining intimacy. I found “End of the World” (another Matt Alber song—and a very fine one) to be the highlight of the evening. Its amusement park imagery is sharp and rich, and Ballard sings it with emotional depth. “Beyond Where the Boardwalk Ends” (Mathias again, and Jonathan Monro) celebrates the joys of unfettered sexuality, while “One Man Guy” (Loudon Wainwright III) is a don’t-fence-me-in sort of ode to self-sufficiency. The end of the narrative features a couple of likeable songs by Ballard himself, including “So, This Is My Life,” in which he sums up his alter ego’s journey.

There will surely be other cabaret acts in David Ballard’s future—and in some of them he may sing Sondheim and gab at length with the audience. But as a debut, the spare “Having It All” gives us a good sense of what Ballard can do as an artist. With apologies to Boy George, Ballard may not yet be a star, but he sure as hell has become a talented man. Trained for musical theatre, he is adept at harnessing his acting skills in service of a song. Further experience in club settings—along with further life experience—should help him develop an even more distinctive and compelling cabaret presence.

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Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. In addition to reviewing for BistroAwards.com, he contributes regularly to theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com. Other reviews and articles have appeared in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

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