Review: Melissa Etheridge's New Off-Broadway Concert Is a Great Party (but Needs a Little Pruning)
Etheridge explores her life in this new solo show at New World Stages.
Autobiographical shows usually come in two flavors: There are the tell-alls and the tell-nones. With the debut of her new musical biography My Window at New World Stages, Grammy-winning rocker Melissa Etheridge pioneers a new genre somewhere in the middle: the tell-some. For nearly three hours, she delights us with a dry sense of humor and a whole lot of music as she recounts her life from the day she was born to this very night. It's only when you're thinking about it afterward that you realize you haven't learned much more about the real Melissa Etheridge than you knew going in.
Etheridge, who primarily wrote the show (with contributions from her wife, Nurse Jackie creator Linda Wallem), gives us everything and the kitchen sink, and then some, but without a huge amount of detail. She was born (a hilarious sight-gag that begins with her screaming "I gotta come out!" as she enters the stage from within a giant box — interpret all of that as you will) in Leavenworth, Kansas, discovered music and her sexuality (somewhat in tandem), got famous, survived breast cancer, took a "heroic dose" of cannabis that led her to discover the secrets of the universe, and eventually decided to live as happy a life as she can in the face of strife. It's a fairly standard "Person leaves small-town seeking fame and fortune" narrative, which is pretty much what all of these shows are, and it clocks in at two hours and 50-minutes with intermission.
Look, My Window is delightful. Etheridge is an amazing performer. She had me in the palm of her hand from the minute she escaped from the box and I'm not even a casual fan — going in, I could only tell you one, maybe two, of her songs. (As I write this, I'm listening to her discography, because I'm all in now.) But there's so much fat in this script that needs to be edited, cut, or revised. We don't even get a full song until nearly an hour into the show, and especially in the overlong opening section, which gives us a vague overview of her childhood and family dynamic, she doesn't seem quite comfortable yet. She gets there eventually.
Etheridge and director Amy Tinkham ought to have gone deeper rather than wider. There's a lot of skirting over feelings, and just as much that goes unsaid. Projection designer Olivia Sebesky flashes images of people like Etheridge's first wife, Julie Cypher, on the screen, but Etheridge doesn't name her or anyone else. Perhaps it's out of protection for others, or out of self-preservation and privacy, but it's not like these details aren't already well known (honestly, she's gone much further in interviews). It would only enhance the piece if she were as honest throughout as she is toward the end, when she talks about her son Beckett's fatal drug overdose in 2020, and how Cypher emailed her saying that it was Etheridge's fault. That's the sort of honesty that should be on display throughout, and the fact that this particular section exists proves that she's not afraid of going there.
There's a no-expense-spared quality within Tinkham's relatively pared-down staging, on a theatrically bare stage designed by Bruce Rodgers. The music sounds great thanks to Colle Bustin's wonderful sound design, and Abigail Rosen Holmes's lighting is surprisingly moody. There are even costume changes — not really for Etheridge, who takes one punk rock jacket off and puts another one on, but for a second character, a silent roadie (hilariously played by Kate Owens). As this roadie falls deeper under Etheridge's spell, her traditionally militant backstage-wear becomes queerer and queerer, an ongoing sight gag from designer Andrea Lauer that could use a bigger payoff.
As for the music, of course it's tremendous. Etheridge's fan base doesn't really care about how long the show is or what she talks about, they're just happy to see her up close and personal in a relatively small (albeit completely charmless) auditorium, and they'd listen to her play all night if they could. Quite honestly, I would too — her voice is in remarkable shape for a 61-year-old who's been a rock star for pretty much her whole adult life. It's got all the texture, all the sharpness, as it does on her records. And to see her mastery with the guitar (she must play at least half-a-dozen different ones over the course of the show, I lost count) in such an intimate setting is just a genuine treat.
Shows like this are usually of the "your mileage may vary depending on how much you like the subject" variety, but in My Window, Etheridge made a new fan out of me. With the right kind of work, this show could really become the event it wants to be, but it's a party I'm glad I attended nonetheless.