David Friedman writes songs for an audience that knows its way around a 12-step meeting or other support groups. In a lot of ways, Listen to My Heart: The Songs of David Friedman is like a therapy song cycle.
Love is the answer, somebody — or something, i.e., a higher power — is always there for you, it's important to get in touch with your feelings, and happiness comes from living in the moment. These are the sort of sentiments that show up again and again in Friedman's songs. If the lyrics flirt with greeting card triteness, they also connect with plenty of people.
Listen to My Heart is an unexpected choice to open Stageworks' new theater, because Anna Brennen's company is more closely identified with drama than music. But there's something satisfying about this full immersion in a songwriter's catalog, especially since the songwriter himself is intimately involved with the show.
Though Friedman is not a household name, he has an interesting, eclectic resume (recounted in great detail in the playbill) that ranges from conducting Broadway and Disney movie musicals to writing songs for Kathie Lee Gifford's maudlin "Everyone Has a Story" feature on the Today show. A prolific composer and lyricist, he is distinguished for work with cabaret singers like Nancy LaMott, and has had his share of hits, such as Open Your Eyes to Love from The Lizzie McGuire Movie.
Friedman mainly lives in Connecticut, but he and his partner, Unity Church minister Shawn Moninger, also have a condo in Tampa, and they have become active in the community.
Listen to My Heart, with a cast of five singers plus Friedman at the piano (he also sings), is a slightly revised version of a revue originally performed off Broadway in 2003. The songwriter says he'd like to bring this production, expertly staged by Stageworks associate artistic director Karla Hartley, back to New York.
Friedman is a pleasant, polished presence, and the rather elusive concept of the show is that the singers are "voices inside my head" that inspire his songs. There is no story line, beyond a generalized arc of relationships gained, lost, renewed and so forth suggested by the lineup of more than 25 songs. The cast is terrific, though the three women tend to make more of an impact.
Lulu Picart gives the most theatrical performance in comic numbers such as I'm Not My Mother. Heather Krueger brings a pop-country diva's style to We Live on Borrowed Time, a torch song combining emotional and therapeutic uplift. Alison Burns sings We Can Be Kind with lovely purity of tone.
Craig Sculli's big moment comes in Catch Me, a power ballad for a man "standin' in the cold" between disaster and recovery. Fred Ross has one solo, You're Already There, but seems most useful for his passionate clinches with Burns, during one of which the pair took a nasty tumble while making an exit in Sunday's matinee.
The finale features Friedman alone at the piano, singing — in one song, he seems to reflect on his own death — and at first, that feels like a misstep, since his voice, though sturdy enough, is far from glamorous. But a songwriter interpreting his own music has real power, and when he is joined by the offstage cast in harmony, it's a beautiful moment.
Listen to My Heart features digital images by John Paul Boukis projected on a back screen. This allows for some nice effects — the singers in silhouette, for example — but the images are often too literal, like the pickup truck and piano keys for Krueger's rendition of My White Knight ("He rode into town in a pickup truck").
Stageworks' new home is a classic black box, with 99 purple seats and a high ceiling over the stage. Was miking the singers really necessary in such a small space? Despite the crunch to prepare the theater's opening, the only evident problem Sunday was the noisy air-conditioning system.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.