I first saw David Rasche sing in Little Miss Sunshine at Second Stage Theatre, back in 2013. William Finn and James Lapine’s forgotten musical adaptation of the hit movie featured Rasche as the foul-mouthed grandpa. Finn’s song for the character, “The Happiest Guy in the Van,” was a simple one – it was about all the sex grandpa has, and how great all that sex was.
At my performance, soon after the song started, Rasche went up. The music kept going, but Rasche wasn’t singing a word. He had lost it – the whole thing – no idea. What felt like an endless awkward silence passed. Then Rasche started to vamp. In my uncertain memory, the vamping consisted mainly of Rasche making “bom bom bom” noises to the tune of the song – though in fairness, I think there were some improvised lyrics in there as well. It was a total mess, and a total delight. Rasche never got the song back, but he did have a lot of fun with his own fumble.
So It felt right that David Rasche at 54 Below features “I Go Up,” a song about forgetting your lines. Like the rest of the show, it’s light, frothy and very charming. And like the rest of the show, it reflects Rasche’s self-effacing sense of humor. Rasche’s presence as an actor is often an amused bafflement, like he can’t quite believe anyone lets him do this. That’s evident in his film work, like In the Loop; his plentiful TV appearances, currently on HBO’s Succession; and in his varied stage career, which has recently included acclaimed performances in The Skin of Our Teeth and Warrior Class. On stage at 54 Below, Rasche projects much the same – a wry amusement, however feigned, that anyone would ever let him on this stage.
Rasche is not looking to upend the cabaret form here. The evening follows a traditional structure. Rasche sings a song, then tells a story, then sings another song, then tells another story. Deep contemplation is not on the menu – in fact, Rasche’s fascinating, varied career is often glossed over. He casually mentions appearing in David Mamet’s first major Chicago production, a hugely significant theatrical event; and tosses off that his Second City class included Bill Murray. Naturally, one wants to hear more about these rooms Rasche was in and the stories he could tell. But, both amusingly and infuriatingly, Rasche does not seem too interested.
Then again, it is a cabaret – what matters is the music. Rasche performs his own original songs, ranging from the amusing ditty “I Love Golf” to the jazzy “I Wish I Was Married To Your Wife” to the romantic “Christmas in LA”. Rasche’s lyrics are cliche-filled, but there’s an endearing honesty to the songs, and generosity in his delivery. Surprisingly, his love songs are the strongest. Despite Rasche’s sarcastic demeanor, his singing feels very sincere, and those numbers are lovely – almost as lovely as noticing Rasche’s wife, Heather Lupton, gazing adoringly as he sang them.
Though Rasche clearly isn’t the introspective type, the show could still use a bit more depth. Though his anecdotes from acting life make for solid transitions, his wandering musings on life being shaped by coincidence are less interesting. No-one is arguing that life is, indeed, mostly a series of coincidences. But even at a cabaret, where the bar for philosophical observations is maybe lower, it’s a banal observation.
Then again, it’s hard to argue that Rasche would benefit from a script, since he feels most genuine when winging it. Near the close of his show and running low on time, Rasche stumbled confusedly through a final anecdote, constantly losing his place. In the final number that followed, he actually “went up,” accidentally delivering on the earlier song’s promise. Like that lost number in Little Miss Sunshine, it was a total mess, and very genuinely David Rasche.