Michael Arden at 54 Below

by Rob Lester

Michael Arden
There's an old saying about performers with wonderful voices, charisma, and lots of soul: they can sing the phone book and you'd love it. Although, in his show at the new nightclub 54 Below, the very talented Michael Arden didn't sing the phone book or the Great American Songbook or numbers from musicals he's been in, or even the two most familiar (to me) numbers on the provided song list (I was hoping for all of this, with the exception of the telephone directory), I was hooked. He sang a song I thought was dull and made it shine. He sang a song I thought was thin and made it rich. He took me out of my musical comfort zone and made me contagiously comfortable in his pop-rock world and, in his own way, he gently but fiercely rocked the audience's world.

When Michael Arden is in the driver's seat, you want to fasten your seat belt and go along for the ride, whether the road be rocky or along new routes, with the car radio on stations I don't normally listen to. But they're his faves and whether I've missed a lot by not knowing a band called The Rescues, I wouldn't have wanted to miss his rendition of their "The City and the River." (Still, I wish he'd also done "River" by Joni Mitchell, which was on his song list, a holdover from his show at Joe's Pub where he tackled all of her Blue album, or "River in the Rain" from Big River, a show on his resumé and another number on that set list.) In any case, his show flowed more smoothly than many rivers and many shows I've seen, and, in his casual, confident stance, with hands in his pockets, the audience was in his pocket, too, from the get-go.

Calling out the lyric from "The City and the River" became a watchcry: "I'm the one who watches over you/ That's what I was built to do ..." until it became a soothing and convincing mantra. He later shrugged off his unusual song choices, such as one named for the creepy clown-garbed killer "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." (written by Sufjan Stevens), and dived into everything with fierce glee or focused intensity. He commented that, transplanted from NYC to California nowadays ("I'm bi-coastal curious"), he drives and just hears things on the radio he wants to sing. And so he does. Reviving Joan Osborne's big pop hit from 1995, "One of Us," asking the question, "What If God was one of us?," he seemed pensive and provocative. But there was no sign of music from or reference to musicals that brought him to the attention of many (the pop opera Bare or his Broadway turn in Twyla Tharp's adventure with the Bob Dylan songbook, The Times They Are A-Changin'). Comments were mostly about recent times; it wasn't a night for nostalgia and looking back. Chatty stories about traveling through Europe while on tour with Barbra Streisand (staying in a "nice hotel ... Well, not the same hotel she was in, but it was nice") peppered the night, but they were about having adventures between shows, not the concerts or that superstar. Nor did he say much about being cast in Charlie Sheen's new "Anger Management" TV show, cutely mentioning that his agents were in the room and "there are confidentiality agreements." Instead, he dished about himself. For example, there was a quirky anecdote about meeting someone at a gym that turned into a night of tease or possibilities with a would-be private dancer with political ambitions.

A small but effective band brought varied colors and moods to the music, with Christian Hebel on violin and an old friend from childhood and early theatre days, Matt Hinkley, on guitar. Michael often praised them and his leader/pianist, the dazzling performer in her own right (recently at Joe's Pub) who goes by the name of Our Lady J.

Most satisfying and intriguing of all were a couple of numbers he wrote himself, like the potent "Hummingbird": "Fly to me, hover in the air/ Just like a dream ... I prayed the nightingale would stay 'til dawn ..." He alluded to a relationship with someone who, like a bird, never stayed in one place for very long. Although seemingly offhand at times, he was quite centered while singing, with little wasted energy. Whether fixed on the audience or dreamy-looking, his eyes were intense. A sudden grin could break the tension or mood at will. He endeared himself to the audience by playing a voicemail message from his grandmother (rambling on enthusiastically about a dessert recipe). And for a P.S. of a personal touch at night's end, he sang "Happy Birthday" to a ringsider when a piece of cake with a candle came into his view, and joshed that the song was the encore.

Fortunately, the real encore was the icing on the metaphorical cake: a touching number he debuted as a work-in-progress from the musical about a scientist he is in the process of writing with his glamorous musical director/pianist. He ended the night with this powerful piece, the room ringing with the words and lingering emotion: "Did you ever hear a song that makes you cry?/ Try to hide them as the tears slide down your face/ Would you still say will is free?" The song was thoughtful, emotional, close to the bone, challenging ... like the artist/writer himself.

Michael Arden appeared for one night only, August 12, at 54 Below. See www.54below.com for this beautiful new venue's many attractions, including plenty of theatre names. The address is 254 West 54 Street and it's known as "Broadway's nightclub."

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