by Rob Lester
by Rob Lester
"And I'm very excited about that," seems to be Nick Cearley's mantra. He stays busy working multiple jobs, going on auditions and fine tuning the set list for his monthly cabaret show ("I want to be fresh," he tells me, "A year and a half ago, I was totally new to cabaret"). Nick seems to be everywhere this year - on the bill in group shows around town, raising the roof at the Duplex with his solo show, and being cast in shows. Over the last several months, I've seen him on the bill in the Cutz/Flopz evening at Joe's Pub, the embrace! benefit, a Songbook concert at the Donnell Library, and in tributes to Nancy LaMott and Joni Mitchell at the Duplex Cabaret Theater, where he also does his solo cabaret show on a monthly basis. He also works as an actor in book shows. I caught his March 5th set at the Duplex and found it to be royally entertaining, as were his guest spots in the benefits. Nick sings in a bright, high voice that can be brassy and brash. On a ballad, he can be yearning and plaintive with youthful longing. There's either unbridled energy or joy just barely contained. And he knows how to work an audience with a campy or quirky number.
This week, he has his May 7 gig at the Duplex (more on that below) and the following night will once again be singing alongside Alysha Umphress for her Twisted Cabaret show May 8 at 11 p.m. at the club XL. As Nick ticks off his projects, it's with the bright-eyed glee of a kid who's telling you about his brand new birthday gift, and then he discusses it like a determined athlete, describing his latest physical challenge. He casually muses, "Yes, I miss my free time - and sleeping. Isn't it funny? When I am bored to tears, I pray to be busy. Then when I am busier than God, I pray to not be! I guess that's the way."
It was interesting watching him rehearse the Sondheim song "Your Eyes Are Blue" for a benefit. Attentively taking in notes from musical director Michael Lavine, Nick steadily improved, tweaking both the musical values and the comedy. He was delighted to share the duet with Lauren Molina (Johanna in the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd) "She's my best friend," he told me. They bonded while playing animals in a tour from hell, going by van (with a cast of seven) from city to city to city for seven months with the Just So stories. They covered 27 states, sometimes driving 10 hours a day between cities and performing up to three shows a day, with the the cast having the additional responsibility of loading in and loading out. "One actor was paid $8 a week extra to drive the van" (which sometimes broke down). The job wasn't easy, nor was getting it - he had eight callbacks before being granted his role of Waldo The Baby Elephant.
"I work hard to get things I want," he says simply over dessert at a neighborhood coffee shop near one of his "day jobs" (actually a night job) as usher for the long-running show Menopause: The Musical. We met after his duties during intermission (or as it is referred to, "the pause in the Menopause"). This year he has also worked an office job, been a manager at a lounge, done a retail gig and he's also worked at a restaurant, like many young artists who bring New Yorkers the linguini at one job and love songs at another. He auditions, studies and struggles like hundreds of other young performers, but says he doesn't feel the need to have that validated, and keeps the frustrations and master plan private. Rather than compare notes with others, or worry, he just keeps working.
The five-foot-seven dynamo with a shock of black hair laughs easily and is as enthusiastic as he is serious about his work. It's no wonder he's often cast. "I've been labeled 'The Workshop King' by many that I have auditioned for. I seem to get in on the ground level of a lot of musicals or projects that ask me to create roles rather than re-create or fill in for a track like ensemble or whatever. In the past year, I have been featured heavily in over a dozen, not counting the benefits and concerts and cabaret performances I have had the opportunity to work on. I am very familiar with the 'staged reading' and 'workshop' contracts of Equity."
Nick was born and raised in Ohio, where he'll return this summer in a production of Andrew Lippa's john and jen. He calls it one of his favorite shows ever, and revels in the fact that he's going back to Cincinnati and getting paid "the Equity big bucks" to play one of his dream roles. He began in community theater, absorbed some sense of dedication from aunts and a sister who were dancers and ran dance studios. He worked hard as a dancer in a theme park and on a cruise ship and took voice lessons from a professional opera singer, beginning at age 13. But musical comedy has always been a favorite genre. Watching him in performance, it's clear that he comes fully alive on stage, glowing when the crowd reacts to an outrageous line or gesture.
When he first got a message on his answering service from Bill Russell, a writer he greatly admires (he'd loved his Broadway musical Side Show), he says, "I thought it was a prank. I thought it was a friend who figured I'd fall for it." But it was indeed Russell, who'd heard about him through his school, and was putting together a new piece with Side Show's star, Alice Ripley. Called The Last Smoker in America, it's been an ongoing project, a one-act musical being written with Peter Rodgers Melnick, a grandson of Richard Rodgers; there have been demo recordings and workshops, recently at The Rubicon Theatre in California. When I ran into Russell at The Iridium where two of his songs were presented as nominees for the MAC Awards, I mentioned that I was working on a profile of Nick, and the songwriter just beamed and called him "wonderful."
The recording process was new to the singer who'd only performed live. "I'd never been in a recording studio before. The whole process was new to me. I didn't know that you didn't have to be loud. I thought you had to be loud!" he laughs. Nevertheless, based on his work in the studio, he was asked the very next day to perform the songs in a live presentation in a cabaret show called Belters We Have Heard On High. That December night in 2004 was his first time in front of a New York audience.
When musical director Michael Dansicker gave a master class at his school, Nick made sure to get involved and get noticed. Two years later, he sought out Dansicker again and soon enough he was part of Twyla Tharp's workshop for her new show as she tried out ideas. Nick was one of the singers in the initial stages of Tharp's Bob Dylan project, The Times They Are A-Changin'.
A fan of many kinds of music, Nick's monthly cabaret show The Most Overdone Songs Ever: A Not-So-New Revue looks at the most frequently re-heated chestnuts of song in different genres. Early editions focused on show tunes where he thumbed his nose at conventional wisdom that says certain warhorses should be put out to pasture. He sings them fervently as if he never got the memo or tries a wild arrangement and interpretation. With others, he slices and dices them into a giant medley of non-stop anthems and enough snippets of heartfelt ballads to make the singer appear to be on the verge of a heart attack. His show concentrating on theater staples is a riot, and it included many numbers you used to hear in way too many cabaret shows and on too many recordings when everyone wanted to sink their teeth into what was then a new Broadway smash.
Now he's exploring (attacking might be a better verb) mega-hits from the 1980s, a decade that began when he was in diapers. He varies his show by shaking up the set list a bit, and having different guests join him on stage. "A lot of people talk about the '80s like the music was crap and no one knew what they were doing. But I think the '80s was a very cool time of change and experimenting, kind of like what I am doing right now in my life, and to re-explore it in my show is going to be fun. I think it will be challenging because I am used to singing show tunes and using a lot of vibrato and so forth. I am excited to take on a different style that I have been so eager to explore for a very long time now."
The act is music-directed by Ray Fellman and will include a band this time around. The show's MAC Award-winning director, Phil Geoffrey Bond, told me, "The funny thing about Nick's show is that everybody has expectations about what he should sing. I've had people passing me notes during the show with song suggestions. There are lots of overdone songs ... and most of them are overdone for a reason. It's really our obsession with them that's made them cheesy and camp. Most revivals of plays and musicals are overdone works - but again, for a reason. They've stood the test of time."
Nick is also happy to have some other singers on board, including Brandon Cutrell and Gabrielle Stravelli. "It's a stellar line-up of my friends singing everything from Dolly Parton to Heart to Sting to Journey to U2. Very very excited for it. Now that I'm not doing a play at night, I have to devote all my focus to it." The play he refers to was Cupid and Psyche, at Altered Stages, a non-musical in which he played a tap-dancing Greek slave of Aphrodite. "I really loved doing a straight play," he reports, although he this trained singer discovered it to be vocally more challenging than a musical, "because you have to have technique when you speak so you don't constantly grab your throat and make it tired. When you sing, you're using your technique naturally, but you don't really think about those things when you're speaking."
Not one to take much of a breather, he's also busy at work rehearsing another musical. "The new musical I'm in is La Gioconda playing at the [Harold] Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row in June, opposite Lewis Cleale and Megan McGinnis of Beauty and the Beast. "I play Salai who is involved in the love triangle between Lisa and Leonardo da Vinci."
It's been a pleasure getting to know Nick Cearley over a series of conversations and catching him in his various performances. The high-energy, man is full of zip onstage and off. His resume also makes mention of the fact that he is a runner and is highly skilled with a hula hoop. I wouldn't doubt it.
Nick Cearley can be seen in his cabaret show at The Duplex Cabaret Theater, on May 7 and June 4 at 7:00 p.m.
For more information and to hear Nick sing, visit his website, www.NickCearley.com.
Photos: Allen Murabayashi