Charlie Lustman's 'Made Me Nuclear'

The musician turns his cancer battle into a life-affirming song cycle.

Los Angeles Times - Theater Review - By Daryl H. Miller
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
September 20, 2008

After meeting Charlie Lustman, it's a little harder to take life for granted.

In 2006, the musician and then-proprietor of the Silent Movie Theatre was told that the curious bump on his jaw was a rare cancer. Eradicating it meant removal of three-quarters of his upper jaw (since replaced with a prosthetic mouthpiece) and a year of chemotherapy. But he'd been given back what he was afraid he'd lost, and he felt compelled to turn his feelings into music. The result was the song cycle “Made Me Nuclear,” which he released as an album and now performs as a theatrical concert at the Santa Monica Playhouse.

Alone onstage, Lustman appears vulnerable. Behind him loom the concentric rings and cross hairs of what looks like a giant piece of medical equipment about to swallow him.

Worry washes across his face as he relives the news of the diagnosis. He was 40 at the time; he and his wife had one child and another on the way. But it isn't long before he finds some humor in his situation, envisioning himself transformed, like some comic-book hero, when he's injected with radioactive dye for a CT scan. That's the gist of the bouncy title song, in which he declares himself remade as “a subatomic man”.

Lustman's free-and-easy melodies variously call to mind '70s folk, the blues and the Beatles. High and vibratoless, his voice is sometimes James Taylor-ish, sometimes Elton John-ish. He accompanies himself on keyboard or guitar, often against backing tracks that add layers to the sound. He doesn't say much between songs, letting the lyrics convey what needs to be known. Directed by Chris DeCarlo, the show is perfectly simple — and simply irresistible.

Perhaps there's nothing truly new here; the melodies are so unaffected that they sound familiar on first hearing, and what Lustman has to say has been said before. Yet maybe that's why this show is able to grab the audience in a bear hug right away and not let go. Lustman's eyes crinkle impishly. He fairly glows with newfound life. Just minutes into the performance, we do too.

"Made Me Nuclear," Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; ends Nov. 1. $20. Running time: 55 minutes.

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