ERIC MICHAEL GILLETT
Cast of Thousands
The Songs of CRAIG CARNELIA
Don’t Tell Mama, New York, NY
When young people today wish to bestow their highest accolade on something or someone, they often use the word awesome. To describe Eric Michael Gillett’s revival of a show that was magnificent in its inception fifteen years ago, Cast of Thousands: The Songs of Craig Carnelia, that adjective, awesome, seems exactly right.
Eric’s talents seem only to have increased in the intervening years. His acting abilities are such that—to borrow from a conversation with Sidney Myer after the show—each song becomes a theatrical experience, with Eric able to capture the personality and emotional life of the character portrayed in the song. His changing facial expressions and body language have become subtly refined over time, and this show should result in a DVD instead of the CD that emerged from his original performance. Eric’s voice is, as always, astounding. It often soars to the point where it seems as if he could hold a single note forever. This soaring evokes one of Carnelia’s greatest songs and one forever associated with Eric, “Flight.” He did not sing it last night but will in the next two performances at Don’t Tell Mama, which will be closer to the theater piece he hopes this revival will lead to. Soaring and coming back to earth are motifs Carnelia explores in many songs, motifs perfectly suited to Eric’s vocal qualities.
The creative marriage of Eric Michael Gillett with Craig Carnelia is, to risk a cliche, one made in heaven. Carnelia’s brilliant lyrics and clearly defined melodies as well as the depth and subtleties of his themes find their counterpart in Eric’s talents. One of the Carnelia’s achievements is to hold equally poised reality and dreams, so that he creates an infinite realm of potentiality. Did the boy in “What You’d Call a Dream” only fantasize about hitting the winning run that brought his team to victory, and if he is only describing a dream, when did the dream take place? When he was young and his aspirations made everything seem hopeful, or when he was an adult who had to face the disparity between what he yearned for and what he achieved. It is this disparity that gives “Fran and Janey” its power and its pathos. Who of us has not experienced that measuring of where we were and where we are?
Many changes have taken place in both Craig Carnelia’s and Eric Michael Gillett’s lives these past fifteen years, with both involved in new projects, successes, disappointments, pain. Eric focuses, appropriately so, on his own changes. The shedding of a bad lover. The death of his beautiful, beloved mother (Eric’s friends know hers was not an easy end), whose picture with her four-year-old Eric is made timeless on a cup he shows the audience. But most important for the show, these emotional experiences have changed Eric’s perspectives. Whereas he once looked at photographs in an album and wondered in an almost detached fashion what happened to those people, he now realizes he too is a picture in a photo. In this conflation of past, present, and future, he and Craig Carnelia have come together in the themes that draw them both. As far as how this new way of seeing affects Eric’s performance (I was fortunate enough to see the original show and remember it well), it is clear that his emotions have both deepened and intensified. The devastating song of divorce, “You Can Have the T.V.,” has picked up a particularly bitter edge since he sang it years ago, almost certainly because of the broken ten-year relationship. The young boy who hopes the snow will keep him from school is sung with even more gusto as Eric looks farther back in the past at the disingenuousness of youth and its enthusiasms.
There is new or different material by Craig Carnelia in the show as well. One of the most striking is “Joe,” not used in the original Cast of Thousands. Joe describes retired life with resignation and yearning, describing his flight from daily tedium and evoking the fears of every listener who worries about what life will be like, not after high school, but after working. In fact, although “Joe” is not a new Carnelia song, it can still epitomize the changes that have taken place in both songwriter and singer over fifteen years. Like “Just a Housewife,” in which Eric daringly rejects the confines of gender to deliver a powerful version (he didn’t sing it last night but will in the expanded show), “Joe” comes from Working. High school, working, retirement—this can be perceived as Carnelia’s depiction of the life cycle (very different from Shakespeare’s sonnets or Ervin Drake’s “It Was a Very Good Year,” with their evocation of seasonal change). Eric has unabashedly reached a point in his own life and career when he is ready to confront these subjects and use his prodigious talents to bring them to life.
Cast of Thousands, does not, however, end with a vision of symbolic winter. “Life on Earth” is a celebration of the beauty of this world and calls on our capacity for joy. This celebration is reinforced by the beaming face of Eric’s new piano accompanist, the young Jeffrey Cubeta, new to cabaret but already adept at knowing how to support a singer without overwhelming him. Jeff reveals his own very nice voice in singing “Fran and Janey” with Eric.
Again, this show will be performed in its fuller version on January 14 and 21 at Don’t Tell Mama when time permits it. And it definitely should go on to become a theater piece
January 7, 2011