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By Carolyn Hayes
As with any vibrant arts atmosphere, Michigan’s theater community is a breeding ground that generates its share of exports. Performers leave to take job offers elsewhere or to pursue larger or different markets, without any inkling of where their career’s journeys will ultimately lead. Some even circle all the way back to where they came from – and, in the case of Eric Gutman, that’s really something to sing about.
The Berman Center for the Performing Arts in West Bloomfield will host the Michigan native’s autobiographical one-man musical production, “Eric Gutman: From Broadway to Obscurity,” in an exclusive three-show engagement on Jan. 25 and 26.
Here, “Broadway” is no exaggeration: Gutman served nearly three years with the blockbuster musical “Jersey Boys,” both in national tours and on the Great White Way, performing a total of six different roles (including three of the Four Seasons). His professional career started with the “Forbidden Broadway” series of satirical musical theater revues, a relationship that began soon after his graduation from Western Michigan University and continues to this day: He was recently called to step in for a production on a few days’ notice. “It’s the most structured, professional guerrilla theater you’ll ever see,” Gutman declared. “You get thrown in, and – ‘What part have you done, what part do you do, what impersonations are you better at?'”
Of the title’s two extremes, however, “Obscurity” is the more curious choice, meant to represent the actor’s voluntary return to Michigan to start a family. “How brave of a name is that?” Gutman laughed. The catchy title certainly has an edge of self-deprecating comedy, which is further exploited in the production’s splendid promotional photo: It takes both humor and humility to stand roadside in full “Jersey Boy” regalia, holding a sign reading “WILL WALK LIKE A MAN 4 FOOD.”
Yet “From Broadway to Obscurity” promises to dig much deeper than the veneer of healthy mockery. The last several years have found Gutman busy with local voiceover, on-camera, and regional commercial work and performing on stages including Rochester’s Meadow Brook Theatre, Northville’s Tipping Point Theatre, Detroit’s Gem and Century Theatres, and The Ringwald in Ferndale. Even so, he admitted that giving up packed houses and prestige for comparatively smaller-scale work proved “a hard truth,” recalling seminal experiences that prompted him to second-guess himself and his decision.
“When I was writing the show, that was in the back of my mind,” Gutman confessed.
However, rather than push doubts aside, he resolved to centrally feature this candid material. “There’s some gritty, raw things that have happened, that have got me to where I am now,” he said, and these form the backbone of a personal – and blisteringly honest – production. His journey to Broadway was one thing, Gutman reasoned, but the more important story was his journey out, and beyond. “I didn’t want to just center around ‘I was in “Jersey Boys,” here are some songs, please applaud,'” he explained. “I’m not really holding back.”
This is not to undermine the many songs featured in “From Broadway to Obscurity,” around two dozen in total (some sung, some underscored). Although the numbers will include blasts from Gutman’s performances past, not all are so retrospective: “I chose a lot of songs that I never even sang before,” he clarified. “I just wanted to honor the journey that I took.”
A four-piece band will provide accompaniment; otherwise, the performer appears solo.
Behind the scenes, though, Gutman sings the praises of director Brian Sage and music director Jamie Reed, who have helped shape the show through nine drafts over the past six months: “This is my show, this is my story, but I would kinda be lost if it wasn’t for them.”
These appointments represent further homecomings: Gutman has known Sage since college, calling him “a great sounding board…he’s helped me streamline [the show] and help it make sense.” Of Reed, he recalled a different bond: “I was in marching band with her…She knows me, and she knows my style.”
Far beyond a cabaret revue of past successes, “Eric Gutman: From Broadway to Obscurity” is set to trace an introspective journey, to the tune of musical theater, that its creator characterizes as showing “a lot of heart.” Gutman noted, “I’m very lucky that I could be able to achieve some tremendous things,” but believed his story can resonate with anyone who knows someone struggling in a creative field, or – perhaps more broadly – anyone who has made a right choice that was also a tough choice.
‘Eric Gutman: From Broadway to Obscurity’
The Berman Center for the Performing Arts, 6600 West Maple Road, West Bloomfield. 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 25 and 2 p.m. & 6 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26. $27 ($22 for JCC members). 248-661-1900. http://www.theberman.org