“…not like the other cavemen”
Don’t Tell Mama – September 10 & 14, October 23 & 28, November 2
At the top of his act, Kenneth Gartman speaks about growing up listening to—and singing—Christian pop music. He actually includes a couple of numbers from that genre in his show. On the night I attended, I sometimes felt that I should be reaching for a hymnal in order to follow along and join in on the choruses, even when Gartman performed certain secular material—songs that didn’t mention by name The Big Guy Upstairs.
Much of what Gartman performs falls into the “inspirational” category—anthems devoted to personal and spiritual growth. There are songs of existential affirmation (David Friedman’s “There Is Life”), of hope in the face of despair (Jason Robert Brown’s “Hear My Song”), and of personal transcendence (D. Vincent Williams & Phillip White’s “I’m Movin’ On”). Because of his enthusiasm (and maybe in order to compensate for some not-very-interesting lyrics in some of this material), Gartman frequently twisted the volume dial up and kept it there. His strong and showy tenor voice got quite a workout. In fact, sometimes it sounded pinched and strained.
Autobiography is the frame on which Gartman hangs his song list. He talks ingratiatingly about how, as a rigorously churched boy in Texas, he disapproved of deer hunting (even while enjoying the venison jerky that materialized after the hunts). He tells about how he won a lip-sync contest at the Baptist church by dressing in drag and mouthing words to songs by his role model, Christian singer Sandi Patty. Later, we learn, he moved to Big Bad New York to become an actor. He sought and found a measure of love and career success, but soon underwent a Dark Night of the Soul from which he needed to be delivered. And from which, eventually, he was. Say amen.
Fortunately, Gartman (with guidance from director Shawn Moninger and pianist/musical director Doyle Newmyer) leavens his saga of self-discovery with some musical humor. He includes Peter Mills’s increasingly popular “Way Ahead of My Time (The Caveman Song)” to explain his difference from fellow Texans (the song even inspired the show’s title). He delivers that number briskly and effectively, brandishing gospel-style jazz hands on the phrase “the glory of us all.” Another instance of levity comes with Brian Lasser’s “I Eat,” a song making light of food addiction. This number would not have been so amusing if overeating had been the principal manifestation of Gartman’s deep distress, rather than just a bothersome secondary symptom. (Gartman never grows very explicit about the identity of the main demons he battled during his darkest hours—which is a wise move. By wrapping the ghouls in shadow, he makes them seem particularly ominous. I half-imagined him involved in midnight rituals at Grant’s Tomb, vivisecting baby squirrels.)
Another (ambiguously) humorous song illustrates how thoroughly Gartman’s show is steeped in self-actualization rhetoric: “Say That’s OK,” written specifically for this show by Cassandra Kubinski. On one hand the number seems to ridicule the ethical somersaults performed by the “I’m OK, You’re OK” set. On the other, it apparently takes their line of thinking seriously—even celebrating it. I really was not at all certain what point Gartman was trying to make with this song.
Toward the end of the show, Gartman makes a welcome tonal shift, in the form of—of all things—a medley of Andrew Gold’s “Thank You for Being a Friend” (sung at an unhurried, contemplative pace) and Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” Finally, Gartman has moved beyond all the searching, exploring, grasping, struggling, and overcoming. With Gold’s song (once the inevitable “he’s singing the Golden Girls theme!” titters have subsided), the singer offers a touching expression of gratitude for the blessing of friendship; then, singing King’s song, he flips the equation around and pledges staunch allegiance to those who have supported him. At the performance I attended, the whole demeanor of the performer changed during this medley. He was no longer a grabber, but, rather, a giver. The voice quieted, took on more nuance. Gartman seemed to be communing with the audience instead of rallying them from the pulpit or the choir loft.
I would have loved it if Gartman had gone on singing in that intimate vein. But with the concluding numbers—Karen Drucker’s “Let It Shine” and Jeff Kennedy’s “Pillar of Fire”—we were back in revival-meeting mode. I have hope, though, that when I next hear from Gartman, he’ll have seen the advantage of speaking more often with (as the King James Version would phrase it) a “still, small voice.”
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.