Thursday, September 27, 2018

His Life and Troubled Times: In 'We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time,' David Cale Shares Personal and Musical Recollections -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time
written and performed by David Cale
directed by Robert Falls
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 21

I keep a database of every live non-athletic performance I attend: rock concerts, plays, musicals, jazz, classical, opera, ballet, stand-up comedians, sketch comedy, improv, Cirque du Soleil, the occasional magician, etc., etc.

Not counting a few childhood trips to the circus, college-credit theater and some other stuff that--due to inexact memory or the lack of a ticket stub--never made it into my database, I'm now closing in on 2,000 shows seen in my lifetime, with the vast majority coming since the year 2000.

Aside from solo concert performances, I've attended a handful or two of one-man or one-woman shows, including Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays, Chazz Palminteri's A Bronx Tale (different than the musical based on the movie), Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking, Buyer & Cellar with Michael Urie and George Gershwin Alone by and starring Hershey Felder.

But, as recorded in my trusty "Shows Seen" database, I've seen just two performances I would dub a "Memoir with Music."

The first, last December, was Springsteen on Broadway. Still running until this December, the show features Bruce Springsteen telling largely-scripted tales of his life and career, accompanied by about 15 songs performed on guitar or piano, alone except for two on which his wife, Patti Scialfa, joins him.

Springsteen is my favorite performer of any ilk. Since around 1980, I have been a huge fan of his music--including that which came before--so I own essentially everything he's every released and have seen him in concert 50 times (mostly with the E Street Band alongside). I even once met him at book signing, albeit quite briefly.

I know pretty much all of his songs, and all of the lyrics, and in one form or other had heard or read most of the recollections he shared in Springsteen on Broadway.

Yet I absolutely loved that show, simply as theater.

The other Memoir with Music I've seen came Monday night at Goodman Theatre, where the current mainstage production is We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time, written and performed by an English actor, singer/songwriter and monologuist named David Cale.

Although the show program reminded that Cale wrote and co-starred in Floyd & Clea Under the Western Sky--a quirky musical I really liked at Goodman in 2005--for all practical purposes, I knew nothing about his life and career.

The program further revealed that Cale has had an artistic relationship with the Goodman for three decades, starting with a solo performance piece called The Redthroats in 1988. But I have not seen him in anything other than Floyd & Clea, including never knowingly on TV.

Though Cale appears quite accomplished per his About the Artists credit list, he seemingly is not famous enough to have a Wikipedia entry (unless he scrubbed it to keep secret personal details revealed in the current monologue).

My point is that, as opposed to Springsteen on Broadway, this memoir with music was by someone I didn't enter caring about, nor who was well-known by the public (though perhaps more so by longstanding Goodman patrons).

Like the long-famed rocker, Cale is an engaging and erudite communicator who commands the stage well, even without any sort of video accompaniments (as directed here by Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls).

He doesn't have a great singing voice, but his songs are filled with pathos, which is what many might claim about Springsteen.

At the very least, I would say We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time is good for what it is, and though I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as Springsteen on Broadway (my review) it is worthwhile as a unique work of theater. 

Toward the end of the 90 minutes, Cale's monologue became quite gripping as he told about a dark episode in his life, one that presumably no one could hear without considerable emotionality.

But for much of the show, as Cale talked about growing up in Luton, a crime-ridden city fairly close to London, and how as a child he maintained a menagerie of tropical birds in his backyard, I listened without really learning why I should care about this particular man's life story.

He had a brother, Simon, and one or both of his parents worked in a hat factory--I wasn't quite clear--and Cale discovered he liked boys but also valued friendships with women, including one who loved Joni Mitchell. But while I was engaged throughout, I wasn't that engaged for the entirely, perhaps because I didn't know where Cale's tale was leading--within or beyond this presentation.

A dozen songs are sung, backed by six musicians behind a scrim, including musical director and Cale's collaborator, Matthew Dean Marsh. My favorite tune was one called "Simon," regarding Cale's brother.

Eventually, there is an anecdote about Liza Minelli, and some rather gripping revelations I won't detail.

I see that We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time--not really the best title--is getting far more glowing reviews than this one, and while I can't quite concur, I won't contradict them.

As @@@1/2 denotes, I found the show to be well-done, and it eventually became riveting.

But with no slight meant to the considerable talents of David Cale, for me it just wasn't quite the boss.

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