By James Bartholomew
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. But if you asked Cynthia Shaw, she’d probably tell you something else. She’d say it takes determination.
“Velvet Determination” sees Ms. Shaw, writer and performer, exploring that very concept as she discovers what it takes to become a professional pianist in the Big Apple. Starting with her childhood in Colorado, Shaw tells of how she first became acquainted with the piano, how it came to define her relationship with her family, and ultimately, how it inspired her to try to make a name for herself in New York City.
Of course, determination is nothing without good obstacles to overcome, and Shaw’s story has plenty. From neighbors and landlords who despise her playing to instructors who refuse to teach her, Shaw hardly has it easy on her way to the top. “The top” here means a coveted spot in the Manhattan School of Music, one of the world’s most renowned conservatories. However, the Manhattan School of Music isn’t just a stepping stone to musical greatness. For Shaw, admission to her dream conservatory means validation as a musician and the dispelling of personal demons.
Cleverly, the myriad obstacles Shaw encounters feed into her fears of musical inadequacy. “I knew that no one truly wanted to listen to me,” Shaw confesses, “and that sabotaged me.” Throughout the piece, Shaw struggles against her doubts of not being good enough or worthy enough for her lofty ambitions. It’s a thematic through-line that forms the emotional core of the show and one that hits on a near universal level. Although the plot never really goes beyond Shaw’s quest for acceptance – both of herself and to the Manhattan School – it unfolds in a way that’s endearingly sympathetic.
The emotional heavy lifting comes from Shaw’s lovely performance, not just as her younger self, but also as a rogues’ gallery of side characters she meets on her journey. Whether playing pretentious urban socialites, Salvation Army majors, or chattering old women on the crosstown bus, Shaw gives each of her characters a charming and often humorous flair that always sells the scene. Even her villains have a charismatic allure that keeps you smiling and wanting more.
That warmth is felt most when Shaw simply narrates the events of her life, doing so with a friendly, relaxed energy that makes the piece feel more like a conversation over afternoon tea than a theatrical performance. Her earnestness and passion help lift a play that might otherwise risk becoming self-indulgent. Every story Shaw tells rings with authenticity and honesty. That is a prerequisite for any autobiographical performance, to be sure, but Shaw has a beautiful way of recapturing her own youthful exuberance that keeps the work light yet sincere.
But the biggest sell for “Velvet Determination” is Shaw’s excellent piano playing, which accompanies the piece. At various times throughout the show, Shaw will sit down at her piano and play an excerpt from her impressive repertoire. These musical interludes don’t just exist to transition between scenes; they help illustrate Shaw’s development as a musician. Oftentimes, she’ll play poorly to demonstrate some musical shortcoming her younger self had yet to overcome, then play with improved technique later on to show her improvement over time.
The emphasis on music makes “Velvet Determination” a showcase for Shaw’s evolution as a pianist told in the medium of music, rather than just a linear narrative of her history moving to New York. In isolation, the nuts and bolts of the show’s plot are humorous and charming, but light on substance. Paired with Shaw’s beautiful playing and knack for whimsical storytelling, however, the play is a delight. If you’re looking for an uplifting affirmation of the rewards of hard work, look no further than “Velvet Determination.”
“Velvet Determination ~ A Young Pianist’s Journey to New York”
Written and Performed by Cynthia Shaw
Sept. 27 at 7:30pm, Oct. 5 at 9pm, Oct. 7 at 4:30pm
Director: Page Clements
Photo: courtesy of the production
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.