Duncan Sheik at Café Carlyle
The Broadway composer brings his reveries to the Café Carlyle.
"I'd like to tell you that the show is going to get peppy," says Duncan Sheik about three songs into his debut set at the Café Carlyle, "but don't hold your breath." Sure enough, the "Barely Breathing" singer-songwriter and Broadway composer stays true to his word, resulting in a mostly mellow evening of his contemplative original songs, sure to delight his fans while lulling the rest of us into a pleasant stupor.
Sheik (best known to theater audiences as the composer behind Spring Awakening and American Psycho) is a superb musician. His ability to marry thoughtful lyrics to gorgeous music makes him a special figure in American music and theater. We grasp that from his opening number, "Half a Room," which comes off his last album, Legerdemain. The sweetly driving melody (and glockenspiel accompaniment) suggests a lullaby, but a close listen to the lyrics reveals this to be a song of middle-aged disappointment. It's a song that acknowledges its shortcomings with lyrics like, "Left with half my time / I'll make do with half rhymes." In one perfect rhyme, Sheik matches "not half bad" with "just a little sad," which is a fairly apt assessment of this show.
That tone of gentle dissatisfaction continues through the evening in Sheik's "Memento," a sophisticated cocktail lounge groove about the failure to connect that poses the lyrical question, "How can you hold a soul?" He chases that with the mysterious "Circling," which feels like discovering a private letter about events for which you have little context, yet still experiencing an incredible sadness emanating from the page.
To be sure, there are moments of light in the show, like the charming love song "For You," which Sheik concludes with a seemingly involuntary wag of his tail. The happy-place number "Such Reveries" (which Sheik wrote while in Mexico) transports us to a warm and comfortable beach vacation made especially sunny by the timbre of Sheik's voice, which is as clear and fresh as ever.
Jason Hart deftly accompanies Sheik on piano, glockenspiel, and harmonium (always an excellent instrument to employ when you want to give your audience goosebumps). Doug Howell takes on percussion, steadfastly keeping the pulse-slowing beat of the evening.
Kathryn Gallagher (who voiced Martha in the Broadway revival of Spring Awakening) joins Sheik onstage for the dreamy duet of "Afternoon" from Sheik's still-developing Alice in Wonderland musical, Alice by Heart. Gallagher's youthful and exuberant presence causes the onstage energy to shift in the second half of the show. While she maintains a dark seriousness during numbers like "Mama Who Bore Me" and the Cassandra-like meditation of empire, "Star Fields on Red Lines," she injects a jocular levity into the inter-song banter, which is a perfectly natural thing to do in a cabaret space. As she attempts to share funny little anecdotes about their work together, Sheik nervously chuckles along, resistant to the kind of lighthearted ease that usually characterizes the form.
This was even true in one of the celebratory highlights of the evening I attended. As a way to commemorate the birthday of a dear friend in the audience, Sheik performed a heartfelt rendition of Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees." It's a beautiful song that is almost operatic in its consumerist ennui, featuring the refrain "It wears him out, it wears him out." Happy birthday?
Of course, we shouldn't expect Sheik to deliver something that he's never had to offer in the last two decades of his career. His talent has always been as a musical alchemist, taking deep thoughts and even deeper emotions and turning them into arresting songs on which you can float away. This may not be the kind of Carlyle show you're used to, but if you're up for Gen-X angst aged like a peaty scotch into something more complex and satisfying, this is the show for you.