It was during a high-school talent show that Eric Pinder learned he was (in the immortal words of Michael Jackson) "not like other boys."
"I remember this guy did 'American Pie' on a guitar and here I came out and did this big Kurt Weill showstopper number," Pinder says.
Of such choices are study-hall schisms made, even within a private school where "doing a Noel Coward revue wasn't considered odd." Yet Pinder still had a way to go to realize how specific his artistic calling was. He'll salute that process of self-discovery in his appearances at the Orlando Cabaret Festival, revealing through song and story how one of our best-regarded local performers honed the gift for intelligent comedy that's made him considerably more valuable than any square-jawed, cookie-cutter crooner. (In addition to this Sunday's show, Pinder performs at noon April 20 and 27 and 7 p.m. April 29; the festival runs April 13-30.)
"I've always been much better at making people laugh than making them swoon at me when I sing," says Pinder, whose musical training dates at least as far back as age 6. As a nascent piano player, he'd bang out "Laura" and "Ten Cents a Dance." But a parallel passion was stirred when Pinder, out driving with his dad, came across Tom Lehrer's "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" on the radio.
"I had never heard anything quite so funny in my life," he says. "It was like Shakespeare to me, the freshness of it."
Thus began an ongoing devotion to literate silliness. In tribute to that watershed moment, "Pigeons" is one of nine songs Pinder will perform in his Cabaret Festival gig. All but one are comedic in nature, and that's just what a clued-in audience wants from this performer. Gifted with long limbs and a rubbery face that's capable of conveying all manner of smart mischief, he's a proven master at playing the erudite fool the deep thinker who gets the short end of the stick not despite his immense intellectual ammunition but because of it.
It's a persona whose elements came together at Michigan State University, where Pinder majored in musical theater ("not the most practical of majors," he reflects) while feeding his intellectual curiosity. "I would just comb the stacks and look for books" Kant and Kierkegaard were particular finds "simply because it was available to me. I've always been a big reader." His enthusiasm didn't flag as he earned an MFA in theater performance from the University of Florida, then gained postgraduate experience that included a summer-stock cabaret show in Whitehall, Mich. ("The whole region is kind of a tribute to the decline of the lumber industry.")
Since settling in Orlando, he's paid the bills with attractions jobs while establishing his identity through stage work much of it self-written at the Orlando International Fringe Theater Festival and elsewhere. Yet few of those appearances have taxed his musical muscles: His stint of last fall as Officer Lockstock in Mad Cow Theatre's production of Urinetown was his first singing role in quite some time.
"People I've handed résumés to said, 'I didn't know you could sing and dance,'" he says, ruefully.
Now's the time to find out, as Pinder favors the cabaret festival with a nonchronological but nonetheless autobiographical retrospective of his achievements as a "musical theater funny guy." After those four performances are over, he'll mount a Fringe revival of one of his signature spoken pieces, Waiting for Napoleon, an extended monologue that conflates theme-park politics with the contents of Tolstoy's War and Peace.
Among locals, only Pinder could make a merger like that work without shortchanging either source; he's a rare expert at bridging the gap between highbrow and lowbrow. "Everything I do is teaching people," he assesses, `but` I never view it as 'I'm going to sit down and be didactic now.'" Whether the topic is The Iliad or the proper construction of a haiku, he says his goal is to show that high art can be "a really visceral experience."
It's a canny, complex image Pinder is pushing: smart enough to respect but not too smart to relate to. For all his book larnin', he's able to talk fondly and at length about the kids'-TV stars like a certain Oopsie the Clown he watched while growing up in the suburbs of Detroit. And he's recently purchased The Electric Company on DVD, reveling anew in a show that had a profound influence on his sense of comedic timing and performance (as well as providing another outlet for his Tom Lehrer addiction). It's no surprise, then, that a hint of the eternally sarcastic J. Arthur Crank creeps into Pinder's voice as he exaggerates the difficulty of another of his current leisure-time activities:
"I'm trying to get through Anna Karenina now," he reveals. "So good luck with that."
Eric Pinder: Musical Comedy Clown
2:30 pm Sunday, April 16
Mad Cow Theatre