Photo Credit: Tricia Baron
Eric Michael Gillett
Stop This Train
Laurie Beechman Theatre
Nov. 21, 2019 7pm
For his opening number, Eric Michael Gillett offered me and my table-mates a plate of risotto balls. For his second number, he instructed the audience to give a standing ovation while he photographed us from the stage with his phone. Then he riffed amusingly on the sexy French-accented introductions with which lights-and-sound wizard J. P. Perreaux starts each show at the Laurie Beechman Theater—to make up for the fact that, since he’d been interacting with us since the house opened, Eric Michael Gillett needed no introduction.
This playful, confident warm-up act demolished any possibility of a fourth wall before Gillett even began the singing part of his show. And that was a stroke of genius, as Gillett wasn’t just there to entertain—he was there to sing his next life chapter into being, and we were there to witness it.
At age 68, Gillett has experienced the slog (Vegas), the highs (Broadway), and the lows (being fired by his agent) of show business. During the course of “Stop This Train,” his triumphant show at the Laurie Beechman, he confronted the fragile security of that life, and the human toll it has taken on him—suicidal depression, diminishing opportunities, the crushing irony of having to restart his career from scratch while teaching a class of novices the business. Added to these career-related challenges, Gillett suffered additional setbacks including a double knee replacement and an apartment fire that destroyed a life’s worth of keepsakes and memorabilia. That this man has emerged singing is a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit—and that he has emerged singing with such nuance, power, and bubbling good humor is a tribute to Gillett’s own towering talent.
Gillett showcased his skill as a singing actor in three outstanding musical theatre numbers: Craig Carnelia’s Blood On The Moon; Hades, from Stephen Sondheim’s “The Frogs;” and the Carnelia/Marvin Hamlisch collaboration At The Fountain, from “Sweet Smell of Success.” He moved seamlessly into character for these wildly different character pieces, embodying a has-been actor; the gleeful and shameless god Pluto; and a two-bit press agent eyeing the glittering chance of a lifetime.
Gillett tied most of the other songs in the show to his personal narrative. He sang about aging in Stop This Train (John Mayer/Pino Palladino), the title song, and in Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s I Miss The Mountains, he sang about the mixed blessing of antidepressants. Peter Mills’ It’s Amazing The Things That Float was a bemused meditation on his apartment fire, and in musical director Mike Pettry’s stunning Everything I Used To Be With You, Gillett relived the breakup of his most recent intimate relationship.
I wasn’t prepared for the intimacy of Gillett’s revelations, but he never overshared. And although his story of crashing and rebuilding was a personal one, it never felt self-indulgent. Rather, it felt serious; it moved me; it compelled in its terrifying universality. This is the mark of a great cabaret show, personal connection with universal appeal.
In a cheeky nod to the confessional nature of his material, Gillett closed with another original by musical director Pettry, the delightful Without A Stitch On, during which Gillett conducted a singalong, and at the end of which he took an encore verse. The repeated lyric “I’m going to be naked” seemed to sum up Gillett’s response to the series of Job-like trials he’d undergone: with nothing left to lose, he had no choice but to embrace his next chapter with arms and heart wide open. And the audience responded with a spontaneous standing ovation (as opposed to the staged one that preceded the show).
This was a brave and generous evening of song by a brave and generous artist.
Pettry accompanied on piano and guitar.