It’s a relief to see Stew onstage at a Gotham theater again — just don’t tell him that. In “Making It,” his new show about breaking up with girlfriend and longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald, the “Passing Strange” singer/songwriter shows off a lyrical skill that should by rights put him in the same category as Ben Folds or Joe Jackson. Success as a big-ticket rock star eludes him, it seems, while relative success as a reluctant Broadway composer won’t go away. With this song cycle at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Stew displays curiously linked talents for painfully funny, honest songwriting and self-sabotage.The cantankerous composer-performer hasn’t entirely parted ways with Rodewald, incidentally — in a ballsy move, both parties agreed to co-write a show about breaking up, and they take the stage together as they sing duets about getting tired of one another. At first, this is a little uncomfortable to watch, but Stew has a particular gift for making a hurtful truth catchy and wry. In an interview, he described the process of creating “Making It” as “a way of objectifying a pain so that you can not be ruled by it.” That objectification frequently turns pain into a tune with roots in big-band music, or a bouncing melody that practically feels like a Russian dance. Resplendent in an orange jumpsuit and navy blazer, Stew pores over the problem of achieving artistic and financial success as your personal life circles the drain. The substances referenced in the songs — speed and booze, in particular — don’t sound like they provided much help, but it’s the undercurrent of sadness that helps us understand what might drive someone to use them anyway. “Some over-the-counter medicine/To fix the state your head is in,” as he puts it in “Kingdom of Drink.” That song comes from Stew’s solo album, “Something Deeper Than These Changes”; the main song-cycle section of “Making It” occasionally borrows from the artist’s back-catalog, though much of the material is new. Show ends on a pensive note, and the performers exit the stage after barely an hour, leaving the audience a little uncertain. At the perf reviewed, people clapped, but nobody seemed sure whether to expect an encore. Finally, Stew stuck his head out from behind the curtain, looking piqued. The crowd stomped and shouted its approval, and the band came on with their irate frontman still scolding the aud about “this fake shit.” Wednesday’s perf then continued with another 45 minutes of terrific songs — “Rehab” is particularly gorgeous, and the improbable gay anthem, “Ken,” had much of the aud in stitches. But Stew seemed out of sorts and unsure whether he was being appreciated, which is both a little absurd and a shame. Most of his fans could have set him straight, but maybe they just tend to be quieter at his shows because they’re paying attention.
St. Ann's Warehouse; 380 seats; $85 top
A St. Ann's Warehouse presentation of a song cycle in one act by Stew and Heidi Rodewald. Musical director, Stew.
Set and video, Jim Findlay, Jeff Sugg; lighting, K.J. Hardy; sound, Jamie McElhinney; production stage manager, Kelly Shaffer. Opened, reviewed Feb. 17, 2010. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.
With: Stew, Heidi Rodewald, Marty Beller, Michael McGinnis, Joe McGinty, Dan Peck, Brian Drye.