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The feel-good cancer musical

Charlie Lustman brings his personal message of survival to the stage in 'Made Me Nuclear.'

October 20, 2008|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Charlie Lustman is on a musical mission to help people feel better.

He's written and stars in the first pop operetta about surviving cancer, "Made Me Nuclear," now at the Santa Monica Playhouse through December. The sweet, sad and humorous one-man show chronicles Lustman's bout with cancer, beginning with receiving the diagnosis to being declared clean of the disease after a year of chemotherapy.

"Lustman's free-and-easy melodies variously call to mind '70s folk, the blues and the Beatles," The Times' Daryl H. Miller wrote in his review. "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."

L.A. movie buffs remember the 43-year-old Lustman as the owner and operator of the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Avenue from 1999 to 2006. A few years ago, married with a young son, Shaya, and a daughter on the way, Lustman decided to sell the theater so he could get back to his first love -- music.

"I had it on the market," the effusive Lustman recalled at a cozy West Hollywood recording studio. Around the time he got an offer for the theater, his dentist noticed a little bump sticking out of his jaw. Because the doctor couldn't identify what it was, a biopsy was ordered. And on March 1, 2006, Lustman was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of bone cancer -- osteosarcoma of the upper maxilla.

"They sawed my jaw off," he said. "I have a mouth piece now. It is supplementing the jaw bone. This thing goes all the way to the back so you can see my nasal cavity when I take it out. I take it out four or five times a day to clean [after] I eat. I have the cleanest mouth in town."

Lustman found a major parallel between his bout with cancer and his Polish father surviving three concentration camps as a boy during the Holocaust. "The connections were hitting me for the first time," he said. "I shaved my hair -- I said, 'I am going to lose my hair so I am going to shave my hair because I am in control.' I sat there and I looked in the mirror and I felt like I was sitting in the [concentration] camp because I didn't know if I was going to live or die. I never connected with that level of fear -- this guy survived four years under machine guns. I told him, 'You were my inspiration,' over and over. He got that."

As fate would have it, on March 1, 2007 -- a year to the date he got the call about his cancer -- Lustman wrote "The Call."

"My son was at a little music class on Montana," he said. "They have two little studios upstairs, and I said to the person there, 'Do you mind if I go upstairs and just play?' So I went upstairs and I wrote 'The Call.' " As he heard little Shaya singing downstairs, Lustman decided he was going to write a pop operetta about surviving cancer.

"It all kind of clicked in to be the guy who makes everybody affected by cancer or any challenge feel better through music."

And as fate would have it -- on March 1 this year -- Lustman was in a session to master the album and finish it. But he realized that day that he had to do more with "Made Me Nuclear" than just a CD.

"I said to my wife, Ri, 'I have to take this to the world,' " he said. " 'I can't do this as a concert. This is not the festival circuit. This is a sharing experience. That is theater.' "

The family, which now included baby daughter Gita, were living in Idyllwild when he decided to do the one-hour "Made Me Nuclear" as a theater piece. Ri remembered children's theater productions at the intimate 88-seat Santa Monica Playhouse. They checked out the space online and decided to move back to Santa Monica.

Lustman now is setting his sights on a national tour. And he's returning to his silent-movie roots. Beginning Nov. 4, the Santa Monica Playhouse will run silent movies every Tuesday with Lustman host- ing and programming the events.

And the fact that he and his wife are expecting their third child in March is icing on the sundae. "It's a boy," Lustman said, beaming.

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susan.king@latimes.com

"Made Me Nuclear," Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th Street, Santa Monica; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Dec. 27; tickets: $20. (866) 468-3399 or www. mademenuclear.com; running time: 55 minutes.

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