Encore Michigan

Eric Gutman: One man’s musical journey explored at Detroit Public Theatre

Review January 23, 2016 Donald V. Calamia

It’s the dream of pretty much every actor to one day appear in a major show on Broadway. Most never make it there, of course. But those who do understand they’ve joined an exclusive club of well-paid artists who have reached a pinnacle of their careers – and it’s probably safe to assume that most strive to remain on the Great White Way for as long as they possibly can. So why, then, would an actor willingly chuck his successful career in one of Broadway’s biggest blockbusters and return home to Southeast Michigan and an uncertain future?

Eric Gutman in his one-man show

Eric Gutman in his one-man show

That’s the tale that unfolds in Eric Gutman’s autobiographical From Broadway to Obscurity, now playing at the Robert A. and Maggie Allesee Rehearsal Hall inside the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center in Midtown Detroit. The production is the second-ever show staged by the much-talked-about Detroit Public Theatre, and if this endeavor represents the quality of work theatergoers can expect of future productions, the DPT is assured a long and fruitful existence!

The musical journey begins with Gutman at the highpoint of his career: in the Broadway cast of “Jersey Boys,” singing “Oh, What a Night” until – as the lyrics say – “it ended.” But in this context, the meaning is different, as Gutman – after changing into a more relaxed, homey outfit – sets about to explain why he left the show and returned home.

It’s a fascinating and well-told tale – one I won’t hint at much, since the joy of the experiencing the production is observing and listening to it unfold before you. But if nothing else, it’s refreshing to find someone for whom priorities and family are intertwined so tightly that work and life ambitions become subordinate to everything else. (And if there’s a selfish message to walk away with, it’s this: Broadway’s loss is Michigan’s gain, as Gutman’s skills continue to be seen on stages throughout the area.)

Although – technically – a one-person show, From Broadway to Obscurity features a delicious blend of artists whose individual contributions across several disciplines come together to form a perfectly seamless whole.

Besides the splendid script and heartfelt performance by Gutman – whose work in this production reveals why he quickly moved up the ladder of show-biz success beginning a week after graduating from Western Michigan University – accompaniment is provided by four musicians, including music director and pianist Jamie Reed. Various styles of music are easily performed by these accomplished artists (Jeff Sugamosto on guitar, Mike Shriver on bass and Shawn Neil on drums), but equally impressive on opening night was their focus on Gutman whenever they weren’t playing. Never did I catch them accidentally stealing focus; their eyes never wavered, nor did their attention wander.

The story is brought to life in what could be considered a typical, intimate sitting room or living room. Behind it are the musicians; above them is a rectangular projection screen that helps place various moments of the show into their proper context. Thus, the audience – which is seated along three sides of the floor-level stage – is made to feel as if they are guests in Gutman’s house. (The award-winning Monika Essen is credited as production design consultant.)

Such a deceptively simple concept gives the evening a warm, intimate and friendly feel, made more so by the totally effective and scene-defining pools of light designed by Neil Koivu.

Add to the mix a superb sound design that masterfully blends input from a variety of sources, and the result is an ear-pleasing balance from start to finish. (Although uncredited, I suspect Koivu may have had something to do with it.)

Pulling it all together with slick and spot-on direction is Brian P. Sage, another familiar face to Metro Detroit audiences.

The bottom line: Magic is made when actors, musicians, and technical artists of every discipline come together for an unforgettable night of theater – and that’s what happens when Eric Gutman’s “From Broadway to Obscurity” hits the stage of the Detroit Public Theatre. Don’t miss it!

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Week of 4/22/2019

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