Duncan Sheik at the Café Carlyle

Jason Hart, Duncan Sheik, Doug Yowell



By Brian Scott Lipton


Despite his Broadway credentials (as composer of “Spring Awakening” and “American Psycho”), Duncan Sheik is anything but razzle-dazzle. In his low-key yet entertaining cabaret debut at the swanky Café Carlyle, we witness a soulful, sensitive pop-rock troubadour — in the tradition of Gordon Lightfoot or Sting – who speaks with his guitar and his lyrics. (His patter is extremely minimal, and the whole vibe is decidedly more The Bottom Line than the Upper East Side.)

His self-penned songs make up the first half of the evening, and such tunes as “Memento,” “Lay Down Your Weapons,” and “Circling” – many of which deal with the ups, downs, and in-betweens of love – all feel highly personal and create recognizable aural portraits of people and places. (A hotel room in Mexico comes vividly to life in the beautiful “Such Reveries.”) Interestingly, he saves his best-known pop tune, 1996’s deliciously catchy “Barely Breathing,” for his final encore.

Sheik even dips into a few covers: His rendition of Depeche Mode’s “Stripped” both captures the song’s 1980s electropop sound and echoes the future melodies of “Spring Awakening,” while Sheik embraces the austerity of Ryuchi Sakamato’s “Forbidden Colors” (from the film “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence). In tribute to a friend in the house, he even tackled Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” with aplomb. (His accompanist Jason Hart, who plays piano, harmonium, and glocksenspiel, and drummer Doug Yowell prove to be invaluable on these songs.)

Naturally, Sheik doesn’t avoid his theatrical oeuvre — aided by his guest star, the pure-voiced, charismatic Kathryn Gallagher (whose proud dad, actor Peter Gallagher, was in the house with his beautiful wife, Paula Harwood). The pair duetted strongly on the gorgeous “Mama Who Bore Me” while Sheik tore in to the bitter-tinged “Left Behind” (both from “Spring Awakening”). Gallagher beautifully delivered the haunting “Afternoon,” from “Alice by Heart” (a new musical Sheik has written with his “Spring Awakening” collaborator Steven Sater, that is now being developed by MCC Theater), and the pair scored a home run with “This Is Not an Exit,” the gripping final number from the short-lived “American Psycho” (which Sheik revealed he is still working on and hopes to remount soon in London).

Kathryn Gallagher, Duncan Sheik


Sheik’s show may not please cabaret purists, not just because of his choice of material, but his seeming unwillingness to share any life details with his audience. However, those willing to take a detour will enjoy having chosen this fork in the road.


Photos: David Andrako


Duncan Sheik continues at the Café Carlyle (35 East 76th Street) through October 7.

Call 212-744-1600 for reservations