According to Tom Waits "God must be a musician". If that's the case, then a very happy Brisbane audience just worshipped at an alcohol-soaked altar during the homage to Waits: Tom Waits For No Man as part of the Brisbane Cabaret Festival. And what an altar it was. Director Lewis Jones and his cast have transformed the Cremorne Theatre into a luscious cabaret bar, complete with a cascading red velvet curtain as backdrop, a golden chandelier and a very dapper-looking on-stage band The Raindog Orchestra.
Candlelit round tables surrounded the stage, and sitting at them, you could enjoy a bottle of wine and easily imagine yourself transported to any number of the smoky gin-joints evoked by Waits' songs, or "travelogues" as he calls them.
The lights dimmed as we heard the four performers (Pearly Black, Greg Bird, Sandro Colarelli and Alison St Ledger) read excerpts from interviews with Waits. Then, they stumbled on stage, feigning a boozy joy and singing the almost shanty-esque "Singapore".
When they performed as an ensemble like this, the four had a delightful, playful chemistry, often making eye contact, smiling and laughing with each other. When each performer sang individually, there were also some lovely interactions between the resting performers. They leant gently upon each other, softly accompanied the singer or called out encouragement and occasionally even swigged from "alcohol" bottles. Hey, it's not the full bottle of Jack Daniels and the two packs of Marlboro's that Waits is purported to have smoked during a show in the 1970s, but this little touch certainly lent authenticity to the relaxed, bar-room atmosphere.
No one is trying to replicate Waits' grumble here: all the performers sing in Australian accents, and each performer brought their own flair and personality to the show. Best of all, Jones and the cast almost seemed to have matched the persona of the performer to the Waits' songs, to wholly represent the different elements of his stage performance.
Greg Bird was the clown, a tall drink of water whose gangly mannerisms were ideally suited to songs such as the fast-paced hustle of "Step Right Up" and the foot-stamping "I Don't Want to Grow Up". When he took to the piano to perform "The Piano has been Drinking (Not Me)", (complete with purposefully missed notes and faux-drunken giggling fits) he had the crowd in happy stitches.
Pearly Black was down-and-dirty sexiness, all undulating hips and throaty notes, shown off to great effect in songs such as "Black Market Baby". She flirted with the crowd and was utterly seductive and risque.
Sandro Collarelli brought a vaudeville element to his songs. His campy, tongue-in-cheek versions of "Altar Boy" (in which he seductively slunk into the crowd to serenade various tables and slowly, slowly strip off his jacket) and the falsetto, high-stepping "Heartattack and Vine" were highlights of the show and showed off his theatricality as well as his incredible voice.
Alison St Ledger was, for me, the stand out. Her pigeon-toed innocence was the perfect foil for the raucous energy of her fellow performers, and the vulnerability in her songs was heartbreakingly beautiful. When she sang "Kentucky Avenue", a poignant song about the adventures of adolescence, had myself and my companion in tears.
The Raindog Orchestra led by the incredible Phil McLeod (who turned his hand to piano, accordion and cello during the show) deserve a mention. With a deep double bass, a full drum-kit, a crisp trombone and a twangy guitar, this band brought so much gorgeous sounds to the show, and were amply assisted by sound designer Brett Cheney.
The lighting design by Andrew Meadows was also highly atmospheric, with a range red, white and gold light setting the jazz scene. The use of low-set lights (that seemed to come from underneath the stage) was perfect for the slower, more soulful songs where the performers simply sat on stools and sang, and beams of light seemed to radiate from the tops of their heads.
The tempo of this show was exactly right, as we journeyed together from bawdy ensemble cabaret pieces to quiet, soulful jazz tunes. When it finished, the crowd ardently cried out for more, which saw the performers take to the stage again for "Come on Up to the House". Utterly glorious.
Brisbane Cabaret Festival presents
TOM WAITS FOR NO MAN
Directed by Lewis Jones
Venue: Cremorne Theatre, QPAC
Dates/Times: Friday 18 and Saturday 19 June, 7:30pm
Duration: 70mins (no interval)
Tickets: Adult $39 Concession/Groups 10+ $29
6pac Table of 6 including wine and tapas $294
8pac Table of 8 including wine and tapas $392
Bookings: 136 246 | brisbanecabaretfestival.com.au