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Songs from an Unmade Bed

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Those rambling, disconnected thoughts that only emerge on sleepless nights are brought to center stage with Songs from an Unmade Bed, the cozy musical collection that's just premiered at New York Theatre Workshop. Director David Schweizer refers to it in his program notes as a "song cycle," but that seems as inappropriate as calling it a play; it's closer to being the theatrical equivalent of a warm winter comforter.

Even with spring ready to give way to summer, this is an attractive proposition as it's realized here. Mark Campbell has written the lyrics to 18 songs, each of which a different composer has set to music. The show's resulting texture is unique and irresistible, and never fails to delight or surprise as each new composition is revealed in the course of this tightly packed, 60-minute musical stream of consciousness.

And though most of the music is of the wistful, ruminative variety one would expect of numbers about late-night soul-searching, each song has a sound and character all its own that musical director Kimberly Grigsby and her other two band members make sound like a full, consistent score. It's certainly delivered as such by the show's lone performer, Michael Winther, playing an unnamed man exploring the twisted, cluttered byways of his life while trying to drift off to sleep. Most of those reminiscences focus on his past relationships, whether romantic or sexual, successful or (more frequently) failed.

Many of the songs blend comedy with earnest emotion, as does "An Admission" (music by Joseph Thalken), which finds Winther recalling how he preferred one of his lovers to keep his clothes on, or "Dinner Party" (Mark Bennett), in which he remembers how he distractedly passed the time at an unexceptional gathering after a passionate encounter on his then-boyfriend's kitchen floor. "To Sing" (Peter Foley) compares the spiritual qualities of love and music; "Our Separate Ways" (Stephen Hoffman) explores loss.

While there are no low points among the musical selections, some tread territory too familiar to have much real impact. "Spring" (Gihieh Leed) is a little more than a contemporary rewrite of the Rodgers and Hart standard "Spring is Here," with its ache of longing replaced by surface-level annoyance; "I Want to Go Out Tonight" (Brendan Milburn) is an "I'll have fun but always come home to you" number notable for its heavy disco-beat rhythm but saying nothing else new.

The most successful entries are those that specifically define Winther's quirky character. "Here In My Bed" (Jenny Giering) finds him fretting about dying alone (three words, "Death by saltine," accomplish in seconds what would take minutes in a book scene); "The Other Other Woman" (Jake Heggie) is a Broadway-styled comedy number that, in the way it presents how he erects barriers in his relationships, informs almost every other song; "The Night You Decided to Stay" (Steve Marzullo) is a deceptively sweet musing about how he views the fine line between sex and love.

"I Miss New York," composed by Peter Golub as a Frank Sinatra-like nightclub standard, expresses a common sentiment ("I miss New York / And I live here"), but seems unusual given the natural, unaffected honesty with which Winther performs it; he brings that quality, and an equal blend of humor and pathos, to every aspect of his performance. He has a playful, easygoing manner suggesting an innate desire to please, and please he does, vocally and physically - his contortions in Steven Lutvak's "Exit Right," about a night of unsatisfying sex with a self-absorbed actor, are the show's comic highlights.

There's not much in the way of staging; Schweizer's work is generally limited to establishing and maintaining the show's over-arching concept which, with the help of Zinn's costumes (the expected pajamas not just for Winther, but also Grigsby and her two bandmates), Neil Patel's all-white bedroom set, and Brian H. Scott's lights, is that of a cloud-like dreamscape. That's appropriate: Winther, Grigsby, and Campbell and his 18 composers have done a great deal to make Songs from an Unmade Bed a dream of a show you won't want to wake from.

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Songs from an Unmade Bed
Through June 4
Running Time: 60 minutes with no intermission
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge