“You’ll never be a singer,” David Cale’s father told him, “because you can’t sing.” But he can, transcendentally. It’s a matter of passion over polish. (Think Maria Callas, once the voice was gone.) He may shamble onstage almost shyly, as if to mock his own presumption, but within minutes, he owns it.
Cale’s autobiographical solo show – he’s backed by a sextet of superb instrumentalists, elegantly half-lit behind a scrim – spans a boyhood marked by empathy (he turned his backyard in grim Luton, England, into a massive bird sanctuary) and upheaval.
We all have our origin stories, but few so unsettling as Cale’s, shuttlecocked between a brute of a father and a defeated mother who confided, “Oh David, I hope you don’t have as much longing in your life as I’ve had in mine.”
So few of us had mothers who got to live out their full potential. Cale’s portrait of Barbara – whom he plays with a gentle dreaminess – is heartbreaking. A fledgling hat designer, she made what seemed a good marriage and went back on the assembly line in her husband’s factory. She took an interest in her son’s interests (taking him to see the film Cabaret at age 16, for instance). At first blush the narrative appears to be a relatively tame entry in the genus Growing Up Gay.
That’s before the storyline takes a turn so abrupt and extreme, it wouldn’t do to give it away. Cale vividly recalls the trauma and attendant dissociation: “I start to cry, all the time scrutinizing myself.” As he gradually comes to terms with a loss too massive to take in all at once (if ever), he takes us along and points a way forward. It’s a healing of sorts, an act of benediction.