'Death, Let Me Do My Show' review: Rachel Bloom can't shake the dread

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'Death, Let Me Do My Show' review: Rachel Bloom can't shake the dread
Rachel Bloom in “Death, Let Me Do My Show” at Lucille Lortel Theater in Manhattan, Sept. 12, 2023. Bloom’s new solo show dives into birth, death and cosmic confusion. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Elisabeth Vincentelli

NEW YORK, NY.- Rachel Bloom came to perform her latest live show in New York, and she really wanted to do it as if it were 2019. That was the year when her musical-comedy series, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” ended its four-season run on the CW, and Bloom was getting ready to hit the road. But in 2020, some things happened.

Now that she’s finally able to face a live audience again, the writer-performer wanted to treat the coronavirus pandemic as a parenthesis: She was keen, as she put it at the Lucille Lortel Theater a few days ago, to “go back to my old material unsullied by trauma.”

Some things, however, can’t be brushed aside easily, even with the help of gleefully blunt songs, or a few jokes.

Fate, life, inspiration, rumination, grief, time, a dark power greater than even the gods of comedy: Whatever you want to call it, something derailed Bloom’s plan, and “Death, Let Me Do My Show” deals with what she was trying to avoid talking about onstage. (Spoiler alert: “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” cast member David Hull plays one of the aforementioned forces.)

Which is that in the spring of 2020, she found herself in a conjunction of events so chaotic, so intense and so scary that had they been part of a Hollywood movie, critics would have accused the screenwriter of being a tad too melodramatic and over-reliant on far-fetched coincidences.

In the early days of the pandemic, Bloom gave birth to a daughter. The baby had fluid in her lungs and was placed in intensive care. At the same time and on the opposite coast, Bloom’s close collaborator on the series, musician Adam Schlesinger, was also in the hospital, with COVID-19.

Bloom’s child lived; her friend died.

Those harrowing days form the conclusion of Bloom’s memoir, published in November 2020, “I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are,” and are the crux of her almost-one-woman show. Bloom bounces from incomprehension to fear to regret to anger to cosmic confusion (she starts questioning her atheism) and back again. All the while, she expertly deploys a jokey, graphic candor that telegraphs honesty and forthrightness — that, after all, is what we expect from a woman who brightly talks about bodily fluids and whose perky song about trees that smell like semen feels like a deep cut from a bizarro “Mary Poppins” cast album. (Music director Jerome Kurtenbach leads a three-piece backing band.)

Directed by Seth Barrish, a regular Mike Birbiglia collaborator, “Death, Let Me Do My Show” lands closer to Birbiglia’s classic self-examination than to the recent solos by Kate Berlant and Liz Kingsman, which toyed with the genre’s form and conventions, and reflected on the very nature of narcissism.

Bloom is an old-fashioned vaudevillian — because this is the 21st century, she got her start not at a borscht belt resort but by uploading videos on YouTube. (Do look up her 2012 duet with Shaina Taub, “We Don’t Need a Man”; Taub and Kurtenbach are two of Bloom’s several co-songwriters in the new show.) Bloom is also a bona fide theater kid who is fluent in both displaying va-va-voom extroversion and mining her anxieties and struggles for art. The new show toes, often dexterously, the line between confidence and vulnerability, earnest emotion and winking self-dramatization — a number sending up “Dear Evan Hansen” captures the way that hit musical relies on rooting for an unreliable, somewhat unsympathetic lead character.

The songs are the highlights here. Bloom is especially good at puncturing emotion with surreal detail, as when she sings the tender “Lullaby for a Newborn,” then reminds us she had been cradling her bottle of water swathed in a towel. More than blunt language — a tool that loses its sharpness with use — this absurdist vein effectively draws laughs, but it also underscores the show’s real subject: the often cruel arbitrariness of life.

‘Death, Let Me Do My Show’: Through Sept. 30 at the Lucille Lortel Theater, Manhattan; rachelbloomshow.com. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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