By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Published: September 10, 2013
Late in his show at 54 Below on Monday evening, Duncan Sheik offered a tantalizing preview of his new musical based on Bret Easton Ellis’s novel “American Psycho,” which is scheduled to open in London in December. Mr. Sheik, who is 43, has a history of chastising the kind of rampant materialism satirized in Mr. Ellis’s novel.
His new song from that show, “This Is Not an Exit,” is a grim, metaphysical reflection on the annihilation of self, voiced by the novel’s murderous protagonist, Patrick Bateman. The character claims not to exist, so consumed is he is by the trappings of what the song calls “late capitalism.”
“American Psycho” would seem to be an ideal vehicle for Mr. Sheik, whose first show, “Spring Awakening,” written with Steven Sater, transported him to Broadway from the land of introspective singer-songwriters and won them the Tony Award for best musical in 2007. That show distilled a period version of the same interior struggle between the flesh and the spirit. There is an element of the supernatural in Mr. Sheik’s songwriting in which the women often have the diaphanous, ghostly semi-reality of dream lovers.
The divide in Mr. Sheik’s sensibility was reflected on Monday in his choice of instrumentation and in his acute focus on texture. His most refined music is classical in its precision and in the density of its harmonic palette. He is a guitar virtuoso who, more than most pop musicians, uses the guitar as an orchestral instrument.
Mr. Sheik’s ensemble included three string players: a violinist (Entcho Todorov), a cellist (Ben Kalb) and a violist (Paula Cho). Rounding out the ensemble were Doug Yowell on drums and percussion; Jason Hart on keyboard; and the guest vocalist Kimiko Glenn. Sailing over it all was Mr. Sheik’s evocative, droning voice, which often leaps into a plaintive, semi-falsetto cry.
Exquisite is the only word to describe his recent song “Half a Room,” which he said was inspired by his stay at a Venetian luxury hotel in which his renovated quarters consisted of a larger room that had been sliced in half. That song comes from his forthcoming album, “Legerdemain,” half of which he said is soft and reflective, and the other half closer to rock ’n’ roll. He also performed intriguing songs from “Nero,” another music-theater collaboration with Mr. Sater.
A triumph of “Spring Awakening” was its powerful use of drums to illustrate the divide between the dreamy and the visceral. Monday’s show included a suite of songs from “Spring Awakening,” in which Mr. Sheik sang the roles of several characters. Although the performance used elaborate technology, it was never for empty technical display. Even in the darkest songs, a steady sense of balance prevailed.
Duncan Sheik performs through Saturday at 54 Below, 254 West 54th Street, Manhattan; (646) 476-3551, 54below.com.