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Available Light Channels the Magic of Becoming Yourself in Dear Piqua

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Available Light Channels the Magic of Becoming Yourself in Dear PiquaSnapshot of Drew Eberly on stage, courtesy of Matt Slaybaugh.
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Local actor and singer-songwriter Drew Eberly opens his sweet, earnest song cycle Dear Piqua this weekend in a charming Available Light production directed by Matt Slaybaugh.

Drew Eberly gets the elephant in the theatrical room out of the way early by opening with a snatch of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” and winkingly accusing the boss of “stealing [his] ideas” with the smash Springsteen on Broadway. If that Broadway behemoth has set the standard for hanging a person’s songs off a retelling of their memoir, Eberly’s songs and memories shine light on a corner of the world most of us knew and didn’t talk about before the 2016 election: people who came from smaller towns to cities and went back less and less.

Dear Piqua is addressed to Eberly’s hometown, Piqua, just outside of Dayton. The personal, zoomed-in perspective is apparent from the first song and story, about Eberly’s trips with his Grandfather to hometown football games. finding his first heroes in the marching band and, in turn, falling in love with drama and performance.

The accompanying song “Give Mitchell the Ball” turns its chorus, “We all win,” from the rush of having a superstar player carrying the team on their back (something Ohio knows too well) into the sense of feeling uplifted and together in those victories, a feeling that recurs throughout the show.

Photo by Matt Slaybaugh.

“Give Mitchell the Ball” also highlights the limitations of the format of one person with an acoustic guitar on stage — the doo-wop choruses the song hinges on would have more power with other voices alongside Eberly. The Springsteen show has the advantage of songs the audience knows and arrangements filled in by the imagination since its audience members were 16.

The songs here have pleasing resonances with Ryan Adams (a debt tipped off by the title and acknowledged by Eberly as a key component of the going-out ritual for so many of us in the early ‘00s), Elliott Smith, Mountain Goats, and the twin poles that gave so many Midwesterners the understanding they had something to say and the courage to get on a stage: REM and Bob Pollard.

Eberly has a knack for a quirky, accessible melody and a tangy, barbed hook. His tribute to that one friend we all have when we’re first coming into our taste, “Me and Jimmy,” is a standout. “I was just there for the tattooed skinny drummers, Jimmy was there for the drugs.” His look at the beautiful pain of showmances lands a killing blow with “What did you expect? We all came here to be someone else.”

“Fell in Love on the South Side” is an entry in the pantheon of great songs about bars and the communities that grow up in and around them, in this case the missed Tremont Lounge. “I Sang The Wedding” is a rousing closer, an anthem that leaves room for doubts.

One of the great pleasures in Dear Piqua is Eberly’s — and the friends he quotes in letters — remaining affection for where he’s been, how he got here, and everyone he knew along the way. He comes back repeatedly to “We showed up.” Memories are filled with people, if we’re lucky, and Eberly notices and honors that.

While some of these segments ran a little long — the solid 75 minutes could have been a razor-sharp 65 — there wasn’t anything I’d cut in whole. Well, except maybe a “Hello Dolly” that feels as though it’s dropped in from another show.

Dear Piqua is a lovely reminder of the rewards we all reap when we stave off despair and start from a place of hope and joy. The piece acknowledges living that way — living at all — isn’t easy, but everything that makes life magical starts with showing up.

Dear Piqua runs through Oct. 20 with shows at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit avltheatre.com.

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