Charlie Lustman was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in 2006 and now he’s singing about it. Though debilitating illness may not seem a likely subject for a one-man musical, Lustman has lots to sing about. He is, after all, a survivor, and he’s also a talented musician. So every night for the last few weeks, the healthy looking, shiny-eyed, youthful father of two has shouldered a guitar, tickled the ivories, and belted out his story of fear, family bonding, and the fragility of human life in Made Me Nuclear.
Lustman found out about his affliction while in his dentist’s chair. A bump on his gum-line that he assumed was an errant food particle turned out to be an extremely rare osteosarcoma of the upper jaw. In the play, he tells us his odds of winning the lottery three times were better than his odds of contracting this form of cancer. Lustman is cancer-free today, but his good health came after twenty rounds of depleting chemotherapy and many months of uncertainty about his lifespan.
The main reason that the show works is because Lustman is a talented musician, not just an average storyteller seeking an audience for the purpose of broadcasting his personal woes. His singing voice is pleasing and his piano playing is pretty much flawless. It also helps that his sense of humor is threaded throughout his dark songbook, so we don’t just squirm in uncomfortable agony as we hear of his suffering, but we’re actually able to have a laugh or two, buoyed by the fact that our song-stylist is very much alive and kicking.
The music is mostly upbeat, a wise choice on Lustman’s part, as the catchy rhythms help move the story along without bogging it down in woe-is-me moroseness. There are, make no mistake, some truly touching moments that find Lustman plucking more at the heart strings than those of his guitar, but the sad moments seem entirely necessary in light of the subject matter. Though comics like Julia Sweeney have made cancer a laughing matter, it’s nice to see Lustman set aside a few moments for gravity and sincerity in his show.
There are some songs that get a bit too literal, wherein Lustman describes the minutiae of his fight to live rather than the depths of his feelings. A slight textual tweaking to clip out some of the minor details in Lustman’s story and add more metaphoric description would do the show good.
The pacing of the piece is perfect, with Lustman making quick costume changes throughout and wasting no time on entrances and exits. It’s a 12-song set, with snatches of monologue in between, but no dead air in sight. Lustman is clearly a seasoned performer and he knows how to get an audience’s attention and keep it for a brisk 90 minutes.
Made Me Nuclear runs through January 31 at the Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th Street. Tickets are $20. Call 310.394.9779.