There’s no question that Melissa Etheridge is an inviting performer, whether she’s beckoning through her window or simply asking us to enjoy some of the great rock singing ever – and, yes, at 62 she is still a great rock singer, her raspy voice as rangy, powerful and, when she wants, as subtle as it was during her 1990s breakthrough days.
Making her Broadway debut in a solo (well, mostly) song and story show, Melissa Etheridge: My Window, opens tonight at Circle in the Square – a tricky, in-the-round venue that usually undoes traditional plays but her allows the ever-genial, always energetic performer to pace the aisles and rub elbows and share whispers and hugs with fans here for not only for the hits but to be in Etheridge’s starry glow.
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Written by Etheridge with wife and Nurse Jackie co-creator Linda Wallem Etheridge, and directed by Amy Tinkham, My Window is, as the title suggests, a look inside Etheridge’s life, or perhaps lives, as in both personal and professional, young and old, happy and sad. Clearly inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s 2017 Springsteen on Broadway, Etheridge intersperses autobiographical tales though the many songs, memories both happy and bittersweet and, in a couple cases, devastating.
Etheridge, her co-writer and her director, don’t copy Springsteen and his director Thom Zimny exactly, expecially when it came to such dramaturgical details as pacing and weight, crucial decisions like what memory to let breathe and linger, and which nightmare to unleash full force for dramatic impact.
Don’t misunderstand: Most of My Window is as delightful as Etheridge herself. A born performer – she’s been at this as long as she can remember, and began earning a small living at age 12 singing in the bars, honky tonks and occasionally prisons within driving distance of her hometown of Leavenworth, Kansas. Her beloved and understanding dad drove her, uncomplaining, to every gig, sitting without so much as a sip at the bars while “Missy” honed her craft. Mom, not so understanding and a more complaining type, stayed home and sulked. And drank.
Whatever sacrifices father and daughter made during those years would pay off in spades decades later. Melissa Etheridge: My Window is loaded with the singer’s songs both obscure and world-famous, a full and satisfying concert that veers from Etheridge’s simple acoustic guitar accompaniment to her rowdier electric playing. The hits and favorites are present and accounted for: “Juliet,” “Meet Me In The Back,” “Bring Me Some Water,” “I Want To Come Over,” “I’m The Only One,” “Here I Am Again,” and the inevitable (and always welcome) “Come To My Window.” She does a sultry, winking and audience-pleasing “On Broadway,” and a raucous (and even bigger audience pleaser) “Piece of My Heart” as a Janis Joplin homage. There are plenty more, but you get the picture.
The show’s first half is especially charming, with its projections of family photos, old house facades and the occasional appearances (via “Roadie” Kate Owens, who plays any number of small, mostly silent roles – a French waiter, a drunken fan) of real-life mementos from Etheridge’s life (the tennis racket that doubled as a make-believe guitar, the real childhood guitar, the macrame guitar strap so lovingly crafted by her father, her first talent show participation trophy, her first Grammy, her Oscar).
Though she lacks Springsteen’s propensity for working stiff poetry – no complaints here about that – Etheridge’s funny, straightforward, sometimes stumbling recounting of her lifetime’s highlights might, in less personable hands, come off as Wikipedia recitation – and, truth be told, sometimes it still does. But Etheridge, enhanced by a truly fantastic and gorgeous light and projection design (Abigail Rosen Holmes on the former, Olivia Sebesky the latter), sheds any semblance of a Ted Talker by sheer affability. She great company for the nearly three hours, never gushy, pulling no, or few, punches (she names no names when talking about famous friends and lovers, but provides enough clues to anyone interested in Googling; in fact, she encourages it. Like I said, she’s fun).
In discussing the failed marriage to a woman she merely calls “The Movie Star’s Wife” (MSW was married to a star when the Etheridge affair began – i’ll save you the finger work: Julie Cypher, wife of Lou Diamond Phillips), Etheridge walks us through what Joni Mitchell might call those early “so much sweetness in the dark” days before starting to show the strain seeping in. The Movie Star’s Wife wants kids, though Etheridge suspects MSW needs to fill a void where her feelings for Etheridge should be. In any case, just before breaking up (“You lose ’em how you get ’em,” a shoulder-shrugging Etheridge quips) the couple has two children, a daughter and a son.
If you’ve followed Etheridge’s recent life, the mention of a son will chill. But more on that in Act II.
Perhaps it’s the fact that rise-to-fame tales are always so much more interesting that found-famep-at-last denouements, but the anecdotes in the first half of My Window – the troubled home life, the mother’s cruel, homophobic disowning of her daughter, the life-on-the-bum teen and college years, and, more than anything else, her flowering – really, there’s no other word for it – as a young lesbian dazzled by the then-seedy L.A. bars for gay women, refuges where young Missy found her people, found her musical spotlight and her voice and her performance style and, when Island Records’ Chris Blackwell walked through the tavern door, her future.
Etheridge’s evocation of those lost seedy L.A. days and the “Just Kids” aura are moving and powerful and full of forward momentum, a trajectory that can’t help but lose some dramatic steam when, with Act II, Etheridge finds the fame and fortune she’d always wanted. There are more romances – “she moved in,” Etheridge repeatedly jokes. “That’s what we do.” – and a rock star’s experimentation with woo-woo lifestyles, and then the litany of tragedies that we all face with age and, if we’re lucky, accept with as much grace as Etheridge does. The death by cancer of her beloved father hits particularly hard (her mother? Melissa mentions only that the dementia eased the anger she’d carried throughout her life).
Those tragedies come and go quickly in the play, though Etheridge maintains a levelheaded, even breezy attitude throughout most, refusing to give in to self-pity, even when cancer comes to her own body. After a an excursion into Western Medicine, specifically the radiation and chemo that left her bald while performing a 2005 tribute to her hero Joplin, Etheridge opts to take a less traditional path to healing. Cannabis, mescaline, shamanism – Etheridge investigates them all, and investigates and investigates, all with vigor and enthusiasm and, at least on stage, with appropriate psychedelic light accompaniment. She reads and reads some more about disease and self-healing, physics and philosophy and the various approaches that carry her through to this very day.
“When I returned and tried to explain that everything is love,” she says after one trip or another, “I realized that this was something you cannot teach. It can only be learned.” (An editor’s note to people with cancer: Listen to you doctors. Please.)
Even if your tolerance for such rather pat hippie pronouncements is low, Etheridge, her fine musical performances, light shows that dazzle and, above all, a performer’s charming, unstudied stage approach will see you through.
At least until the second act’s inevitable clash with unspeakable tragedy. Knowing that Etheridge’s first-born son dies of a fentanyl overdose at age 21 in 2020 doesn’t quite prepare you for the moment on stage when, for the first time in the show, those swirling, trippy lights fade and Etheridge stands, barely lit by the faintest of spots, and says, out of nowhere, “The morning of my son’s death, I was watching my email for one from the Movie Star’s Wife. The only thing we still shared was the worry for our son. It had been four tense days of not hearing from him. We had sent the police to do a welfare check.”
The first email from her ex finally comes, saying simply, “He’s dead.” The second follows quickly: “I blame you.”
The harsh cruelty of that missive takes us by surprise – until now, even Etheridge’s rockier marriage moments have been free of such vitriol. And Etheridge’s shortcomings as a mother have been written off as standard, stretched-too-thin parenting. Certainly those words from an ex-wife about the death of a son they shared – “I blame you” – would prompt some excoriating self-analysis, or at least some on-stage dark-night-of-the-soul dramatics.
And perhaps they did in real life – we can’t know – but on stage, Etheridge devotes less time to this existence-shaking moment than to the many hallucinogenic trips she takes.
Of her boy, she offers, “My son had been swallowed up by this addiction. I kept feeling all this guilt & shame. Had I done enough? As I went deep into this darkness/ despair I just kept feeling one thing – ‘My son would want me to be happy.’ I was reaching for for my happiness, reaching anything that would lift me up. The one thing that lifted me up was knowing my son would want me to be happy. All is Love.”
Perhaps there’s not a false word in that realization, but, reached, on stage at least, so soon on this lickety-split path of grief, there’s not much complexity or depth there either. Her recovery from unimaginable grief seems blessedly brief, and in real life we wish her for nothing less. That it doesn’t ring true on a dramatic stage is a problem, though. Melissa Etheridge: My Window is a performance built as much on candor as it is on musical talent, and until the big, rushed moment towards the end, Etheridge succeeds on both counts. One suspects its just too soon to deal with the latest tragedy, and Etheridge, her co-writer and her director just haven’t yet found a way to turn this ultimate heartache into art.
Title: Melissa Etheridge: My Window
Venue: Broadway’s Circle in the Square
Director: Amy Tinkham
Written By: Melissa Etheridge with Linda Wallem Etheridge
Cast: Melissa Etheridge, Kate Owens
Running time: 2 hr 30 min (including intermission)
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