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David Cale musical memoir ‘We’re Only Alive…’ strikes a resounding chord

Playwright and performer David Cale in his world premiere solo musical memoir "We’re Only Alive for A Short Amount of Time," directed by Robert Falls at Goodman Theatre. | Liz Lauren Photo

Playwright and performer David Cale in his world premiere solo musical memoir "We’re Only Alive for A Short Amount of Time," directed by Robert Falls at Goodman Theatre. | Liz Lauren Photo

I suppose it makes sense to start this review the same way that performer David Cale begins his one-man show: by talking about his birds. Growing up in Luton, a crumbling industrial town 30 miles outside of London, the young David (born Egleton) built himself a thriving aviary where he bred tropical birds. Those birds (finches mostly) were his refuge from a mother and father who felt even more trapped in their lives than he did and so fought non-stop. By keeping birds in a cage, Cale was able to escape, however briefly, from a cage of his own.

‘We’re Only Alive For A Short Amount of Time’
★★★
When: Through Oct. 21
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $25-$70
Info: www.GoodmanTheatre.org
Run time: 90 minutes, no intermission

If that seems a little pat, well, it is. But that doesn’t make Cale’s musical memoir, “We’re Only Alive For A Short Amount of Time,” directed here by Robert Falls, any less satisfying to imbibe. Despite a fluttery physicality (the kind of thing that could drive you nuts in a lesser performer), Cale is entirely at ease onstage. He’s a warm and gracious emcee to the story of his life and an engaging singer as well, with a trembly, lived-in voice that is to polished Broadway belters what Brian Dennehy is to glamorous movie stars. His songs (with lyrics by Cale and music co-written by Matthew Dean Marsh) conjure mid-century melancholy like a medium conjuring a spirit.

In an interview with the Sun-Times, Cale described his childhood as “drama-filled,” a phrase that is English understatement exemplified. Cale first performed at the Goodman 30 years ago, and has returned several times since, but this is his first show here that is straight autobiography. Without going into too much detail, much of the play’s first half sees Cale portraying his deceased mother, Barbara. In his interpretation, she’s the ghost of the woman she once was: a person with potential and vivacity that Barbara sorely regrets having left for dead.

Cale’s father, Ron, meanwhile, was an bumbling alcoholic living under the thumb of his father, a wealthy local milliner-slash-gangster. Ron’s oafish on his good days, brutish on his bad ones. As Cale lets this parents recount their stories, he skillfully lets the odd bits and the inconsistencies in them add up, until a horrifying act of violence wrenches them all into place and brings the full, bloodspattered picture into focus.

Playwright and performer David Cale and a quintet of musicians — Jered Montgomery (trumpet), Anna Najoom (clarinet), Michelle Campbell (Harp), Dave Belden (Viola) and Desiree Miller (cello)—in his world premiere solo musical memoir "We’re Only Alive for A Short Amount of Time" at the Goodman Theatre. | Liz Lauren Photo

Playwright and performer David Cale and a quintet of musicians — Jered Montgomery (trumpet), Anna Najoom (clarinet), Michelle Campbell (Harp), Dave Belden (Viola) and Desiree Miller (cello)—in his world premiere solo musical memoir “We’re Only Alive for A Short Amount of Time” at the Goodman Theatre. | Liz Lauren Photo

In the show’s second half, Cale returns the focus onto himself and to his escape from the life that fate seems so determined to write for him. In these sections there are several striking moments, but few as resounding as those from earlier. Perhaps it’s that these years in Cale’s life track too neatly onto certain cliches, a sort of Lady Gaga/Springsteen “young gay man needs to leave this one-horse town” mash-up. Or maybe it’s that watching Cale exhume and then embody his parents — his mother in particular — is just to engrossing for any other act to follow.

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Much of the show is performed against a black void, with only Cale’s placement on the stage, and shifts in the lighting (designed by Jennifer Tipton) to alter the picture. A few items descend from the ceiling — a feather, some birdcages, model planes — but the only thing on stage besides Cale is a stool and a couple standing microphones. Oh, and the band. Led by Marsh on piano, a quintet of superb Chicagoland musicians emerges out of the gloom whenever needed for a song or underscore. Kept behind a scrim and half in shadow, they remain present but never in community. When the music fades, and the lights go with it, Cale is left very much alone.

Back to those microphones, for a moment. At first, it seems a curious choice to include them as a part of the set (designed by Kevin Depinet). After all, Cale is mic’d himself, so these other microphones don’t exactly possess real utility. They seem like a so-so effort to evoke a casual, cafe intimacy that, frankly, is a little hard to achieve in the soaring Goodman space. But like all things in Fall’s spare, thoughtful production, they are there for a reason — and they make a poignant return in the show’s closing minutes.

One of Cale’s chief themes here is the performance of life as it’s being lived. During one crucial scene, he describes his teenage self wailing at the site of an unimaginable horror, all the while staring at himself in the mirror and turning into both actor and director of his pain. Life according to David Cale may not be a cabaret, old chum, but it does resemble a one-person show.

Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.