David Cale at Goodman Theatre: Lyrical Storytelling and Songs That Feel Like Poetry

David Cale (center) and his musicians. Photo courtesy Goodman Theatre.

Writer/composer/performer David Cale spent a great deal of his childhood looking for places to escape to, which was not always easy since he rarely left the his family’s modest property in the brutal industrial English town of Luton, said to have the highest crime rate in the UK at the time. To paraphrase one of Cale’s 13 songs in his latest one-man work, We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time, if you’re born in Luton, you’ll likely die there as well. But as Cale tells us, he became rather adept at finding ways to escape—at least mentally—while his parents fought bitterly and with an alarming regularity. He built a small animal hospital in the family shed, listened to Judy Garland records (a detail of his life that was brought up 30 years ago, when Cale debuted at the Goodman with his show The Redthroats), and began to seriously consider a career as a singer.

Cale has had six one-man shows, as well as one play, debut at the Goodman Theatre, and after a 10-year gap since his last appearance, he has returned. Making its world premiere at the Goodman (after being developed through the Goodman’s 2017 New Stages Festival), We’re Only Alive… finds the veteran solo performer (The History of Kisses, Smooch Music, Somebody Else’s HouseDeep in a Dream of You) on a virtually empty stage telling an often disturbing account of a time in his family’s life, after which nothing was the same and was fully beyond repair.

His lyrical storytelling skills are punctuated by delicate songs that feel more like poetry set to music than more the traditional, catchy tunes you might find in a musical. His mission is to capture the appropriate emotion of each chapter of his story with every new number, and on that front, he certainly succeeds, with some songs illustrating his pain and suffering so perfectly, we’re almost tempted to look away as he travels through his raw, exposed memories. On stage at all times with Cale is a quintet, led by arranger/musical director/pianist Matthew Dean Marsh, which hides in the shadows behind a dark scrim, only revealing its presence when lights are shone on them. The effect is less like having musicians present and more like having a ghostly orchestra at Cale’s command to further enhance his dark journey through his past.

As directed by Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls, We’re Only Alive…moves through Cale’s remembrances of his alcoholic father and his outgoing and charming mother, who was still a deeply lonely woman who felt trapped by the times. In an interesting turn, Cale fully acknowledges that his memories of the time are unreliable, which makes for some interesting line blurring between absolute truth and the way a child’s mind twists the truth in ways that help him cope. It doesn’t help that many of the adults in young Cale’s world weren’t honest with him about the single greatest tragedy of his life, presumably in an effort to protect him and his younger brother, but perhaps also so they didn’t have to deal with his emotional response to what really happened.

Telling such personal stories, much like fellow solo performers John Leguizamo and Spalding Gray (Cale even dresses in a plaid shirt, much like Gray frequently did), Cale has never dug quite this deep into his own life. He not only paints the bleak portrait of his childhood quite vividly, but he sets the stage for the life that followed, leaving home at 17, forming a band, and eventually making his way to New York in 1979 with the dream of being a singer—all of which could be viewed as additional ways he sought to escape the place and events in which he grew up. His stories are full of eerie details about his home life, where he takes on the personas and voices of his father and mother in an effort to capture the period rather than simply remembering events through his adult eyes. He portrays his parents as equally tragic figures, but tragic for vastly different reasons, with his mother taking center stage as the unsung influence and hero in his life—a creative woman who had the great misfortune of living in a place that did not encourage any form of standing out in a crowd.

We’re Only Alive… falters a bit in its final moments, with a climactic song that tonally is almost too rousing and defiant to be an effective conclusion to such an understated and melancholy tale, which is ironic since it’s one of the most memorable tunes of the entire production. As exposed and naked as the emotional content can get, the show isn’t a weeper. It may be too hard and dark at its core to elicit tears, but that doesn’t stop it from knotting up one’s stomach and providing a lasting and gripping experieince.

We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time continues at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, through October 21. Performances are Wednesday-Sunday with two performances on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. (There are some exceptions to this schedule, so check the website.) Buy tickets for $20-70.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.