You don’t need a multimillion-dollar budget to mount a musical, and you don’t need to hand over a week’s pay to see one, as evidenced by “Elliot & Me,” Hudson Theatre Works‘ current production, which runs through Dec. 12.
The delightful two-person show delivers a heartwarming 90 minutes of drama, laughs and music for less than the cost of a movie, and even though the show is smothered in schmaltz, it won’t leave a stain on your coat like that movie theater popcorn.
Seeing a show at Hudson Theatre Works’ auditorium at Weehawken’s Woodrow Wilson School always offers an intimate experience, but that is especially true for “Elliot & Me,” a story about the life and times of songwriter Elliot Willensky, as seen through the eyes of his (much) younger brother, Steven. It’s a fairly standard story: A brilliant Jewish kid from a middle class family dashes his parents’ dreams by dropping out of medical school to follow his muse while his younger brother pursues a career in business — and frequently gets called upon to bail his sibling out of financial distress.
Elliot Willensky might not have been Stephen Sondheim, but he did write a few memorable songs, including Michael Jackson’s first solo hit, “Got to Be There,” and the Whitney Houston/Jermaine Jackson duet “If You Say My Eyes Are Beautiful.” Although his career took off in the ’60s, Willensky came from the Irving Berlin school of old-fashioned love songs. “If you say my eyes are beautiful, it’s because I’m looking at you” is about as deep as he got.
In the early 2000s, the Willensky brothers came up with the idea of a musical telling the story of their lives, but Elliot died from complications of a stroke in 2010, at the age of 66, before the show could be finished. Steven, along with Scott Coulter, continued to develop the idea, and this production marks its world premiere. (Another run is planned in Cleveland next year.) The show features a number of original songs written for the musical, as well as songs Elliot Willensky wrote for Smokey Robinson, Tony Orlando and others.
The casting seems odd at first glance; Elliot is played by tall, willowy Hugh Laurie-lookalike Eric Briarley, while the boyish Drew Seigla as Steven resembles a 30-something Beaver Cleaver. But from the first moment their voices combine in perfect two-part harmony, you’ll believe they’re brothers.
Both men showcase not only stunning voices but also superb acting chops, with Seigla especially impressive in conveying Steven’s emotions as he expresses both love and exasperation for his more talented sibling. They handle the operetta-like patter songs written for the show with aplomb, but really shine when delivering the hits, accompanied throughout the evening by an offstage piano. Surprisingly, it’s enough; in fact, it’s beautiful. And the actors even throw in a bit of soft-shoe choreography that’s fun to watch.
Michael Holland’s arrangements translate Willensky’s songs perfectly to the minimalist accompaniment and take ample advantage of Briarley and Seigla’s harmonizing. Director Michael Bias keeps the pace bracing and taut, evoking laughs when appropriate and milking the story’s pathos for all it’s worth. (And yes, I got verklempt more than once.)
There are only a few performances of “Elliot & Me” left at the Woodrow Wilson School in Weehawken, Dec. 10-11 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 12 at 3 p.m. Visit hudsontheatreworks.org.
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