May 18, 2024

Before Melissa Etheridge became a stadium rock star, she spent four years playing lesbian bars in and around LA. That atmosphere—a small, rowdy roomful of happy drunken ladies—changed the way she wrote music and performed. Etheridge loved the intimacy of those late nights—being up close and personal with an audience—and it’s clear from her new show, “Melissa Etheridge: My Window,” that she became expert at whipping up and working a crowd.

But though the Oklahoma-born superstar first comes out on the small stage at Circle in the Square Theater with a guitar slung around her neck like she’s about to give a solo concert to a screaming, clapping audience, what she’s also there to do is tell the story of her life—a story which starts with a small child strumming a badminton racket, and ends with the death of her 21-year-old son of a fentanyl overdose during the pandemic.

So “My Window” is a memoir, but it’s also a confession—part of the healing journey she’s been on since 2020.

You don’t know this, though, during the first act, which is a raucous, funny, and fun show that follows two main tales: the first of a young girl whose love of music was an undeniable force that had her playing Oklahoma clubs every weekend at 13 and 14. The second tale is about young Etheridge’s burgeoning realization that she’s a lesbian in a world that finds such truths aberrant. She’s so open about it and has such fun telling this part of her story—about her various dates over the decades, including with her first wife when that woman was still married to Lou Diamond Phillips—that at least one older Broadway theatergoer left the show, mid first-act, loudly grumbling his way up the aisle.

But the rest of the audience of mostly young women laps up Etheridge’s joy at being gay, and rocks out when she plays her hits written during this time, diving to catch the guitar picks that the rocker regularly tosses into the audience.

The set on which Etheridge plays is minimal—a mic stand, a piano disguised as a traveling musician’s trunk. But the lighting, mostly made up of tiny spotlights that sometimes create a trippy colored lightshow, and other times illuminate the audience, is masterfully done by Abigail Rosen Holmes. Equally excellent are Olivia Sebesky’s projections on the brick wall behind Etheridge. Sometimes they’re simply photos of the musician as a child, and other times they’re moving abstract drawings meant to show the inner life of a troubled rock star.

Speaking of which, the second act is more problematic than the first, not just when Etheridge gets to the part in her story where she’s now become famous, and fame takes a toll on her marriage. It’s a darker story, and Etheridge rushes through some of it and flubs some lines—suddenly you can see the artifice behind what otherwise appears like a seamless, improvised nightclub act.

As Etheridge talks about wild parties she and her wife threw at their house in the Hollywood Hills, and remembers weeks away from home on tour, you can almost feel her ego grow and her compassion for her wife wane. The audience’s laughter becomes strained. One hopes that over the course of the show’s limited run, Etheridge, with the help of director Amy Tinkham, will be able to transform what seems like un-self-aware bitterness into something softer and smarter or more evolved.

Meanwhile, though, she throws into this mix a sudden fascination with hallucinogens like mescalin and ayahuasca. The stories of her trips are overwrought in the way that such tales about mid-life spiritual awakenings sometimes can be. But at the end of the day, this beloved rock star found God using mind-altering substances, and so when she tells the story of her son’s death, you almost believe she’s found a way to understand it, and situate her boy in an ongoing benevolent universe.

The bottom line is that Etheridge is a superstar who on this Broadway stage gives her audience the genuine gift of spending two-and-half hours with her up close, as if it were the old days and she were playing Girl Bar in LA in the ‘90s or the Cubbyhole in the aughts. It’s a brave and unusually intimate offering, worthy of applause.

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