Using Song to Paint a Self-Portrait
: July 7, 2010
“The George Cukor of cabaret directors”: that label was applied to Eric Michael Gillett by his manager, Arthur Shafman, Mr. Gillett announced with sheepish pride on Tuesday evening at the first show of his five-night engagement at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency. For a change, Mr. Gillett, an idiosyncratic, fearlessly emotive baritone, was his own director, performing the music of Harold Arlen. Accompanying him were the reliable pop-jazz pianist Don Rebic, who feigned the look of a bluesman in a slouch hat, and Matt Wigton on bass.
Like Cukor, Mr. Gillett is known as a director with a special sensitivity to women. And several of his ladies, including Karen Akers, K T Sullivan and Karen Oberlin, were present to cheer him on. In each case Mr. Gillett has helped shape conceptual shows whose mixtures of song and talk fuse the personal and the historical into something more cohesive than a conventional set with patter; his shows, especially those for Ms. Akers, are turbulent emotional journeys of self-discovery.
Mr. Gillett applied the same dramatic principles to his own performance. Stories about Arlen and personal reminiscences painted an intimate self-portrait of Mr. Gillett as a man in the thrall of show-business dreams, for whom popular standards are platforms for unguarded confessions.
During his excavations Mr. Gillett forsook caution and coolness and gesticulated, mugged and pushed his voice beyond comfortable limits. His lack of conventional defenses allowed him to bare a vulnerability that most male singers prefer to conceal.
The boldest performances wove music and talk into statements that felt as though he were addressing someone standing at his elbow. Instead of a showstopper, “Come Rain or Come Shine” became a unilateral statement of commitment directed at a silent partner. “A Woman’s Prerogative” was prefaced by his story of growing up with five sisters for whom he played the role of romantic adviser.
“This Time the Dream’s on Me” was delivered as an early rock ’n’ roll ballad with piano triplets and the suggestion of a falsetto. A glistening, sprightly “Gotta Have Me Go With You,” from “A Star Is Born,” pulled the song out from under the shadow of “The Man That Got Away.” Songs from “The Wizard Oz” were accompanied by comic recitations of his favorite lines from the movie.
As the show built to an upbeat finale, Mr. Gillett adopted the tone of a motivational speaker or preacher delivering a sermon straight from the heart. Its message: “Forget your troubles, c’mon get happy!”