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Friday, 28 February 2014 18:38

Marissa Mulder inhabits the words and music of Tom Waits at the Gaslight Cabaret Festival

Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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Marissa Mulder inhabits the words and music of Tom Waits at the Gaslight Cabaret Festival / Stephen Sorokoff

Marissa Mulder's "The Songs of Tom Waits," which had its premiere last March at New York's Metropolitan Room under the more accurately descriptive title "Tom…In His Words," comes to The Gaslight Cabaret Festival dripping with praise. In a profile of Ms. Mulder in the current issue of Cabaret Scenes, Stephen Hanks reports that the show "drew rave reviews from almost the entire New York Cabaret press, including Stephen Holden of the New York Times who called it 'Far and away the season's best cabaret show'." Mr. Hanks himself calls it "surprisingly stunning."

It's not hard to see why. Ms. Mulder's remarkable evening of the words and songs of Tom Waits is a startling act of theatrical legerdemain in which the young and ethereally pretty singer magically metamorphoses into the battered, world-weary, ironic narrator who lurks in all of Waits's lyrics. Songs written for the singer/songwriter's gravely, growly, rusty chain link fence of a voice ought to sound wildly inappropriate sung in Ms. Mulder's light, clear mezzo—but they don't. Even when she's singing songs obviously written for a male narrator like "Jersey Girl" or "(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night," Ms. Mulder's understanding of and respect for the lyric makes her performance utterly credible.

Much of that comes from the way Ms. Mulder has thoroughly internalized the meaning of Waits's words—spoken or sung—and made them her own. But no small part of the show's success also comes from her expert use of what is known in the cabaret world as "focus"—clearly communicating the object of each song's lyric to the audience. There's a great example of that in "Downtown Train" in which she clearly and consistently places the object of the narrator's existential longing up and to her right. When she sings "I know your window and I know it’s late / I know your stairs and your doorway / I walk down your street and past your gate / I stand by the light of the four way" you can almost see that window and that deserted midnight street. The song isn't just sung, it's acted. And damned convincingly.

Perhaps the most powerful moment of the show, at least for me, was the poignant anti-war protest song "The Day After Tomorrow." Mr. Hanks tells us she "stunned the audience at the Lincoln Center Rose Theater" when she performed this at the Mabel Mercer Foundation's annual Cabaret Convention last October.  She introduces the song with the songwriter's own words about both the futility and importance of writing protest songs when the nation is clearly hurtling "at 90 miles per hour down a dead-end street" and then delivers it with a stillness that emphasizes the heartbreaking reality faced by soldiers serving in a pointless and unnecessary war. This should be mandatory listening for what Al Franken calls the "chicken hawks" in congress and their media enablers.

Backing up all this, both instrumentally and vocally, are Ms. Mulder's New York compatriots Jon Weber (piano and music director), Mike Rosengarten (guitar), and Ritt Henn (electric stand-up bass). All three have chances to strut their stuff. Mr. Rosengarten had a fierce solo in the chilling, Raymond Chandlereque " A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun," for example, while Mr. Henn impressed me in "Jersey Girl." Mr. Weber's bluesy piano opens and closes the show, and in between his arrangements display many of the songs in a new light. Until I heard it here, for example, I never realized how much "Broken Bicycles" sounds like a gloss on Ivanovici's "Danube Waves"—better known as "The Anniversary Song." I have no idea whether that was intentional on Waits's part or not, but the irony is certainly rich in any case.

That said, there were some aspects of the evening that didn't entirely work for me. Nearly every song was taken at a tempo somewhere down around Larghissimo which, while it helped maintain the world-weary mood, did sometimes become a bit of a drag. Waits's own performances of his songs often have more of a rhythmic pulse, as I recall. The lighting was also nearly uniformly dark, which sometimes obscured Ms. Mulder's features too much.

Still, that's minor stuff, the equivalent of 37 cents in pocket change in a cinder block bar at closing time. Granted, the show's relentless evocation of Waits's bleak, film noir psychological landscape probably isn't for everyone. But if you're a fan of the songwriter's work or someone who (like me) admires his contributions to the canon of American song without ever rising to fanhood, you won't want to miss this show. Even if you're just willing to explore the territory outside the core of the Great American Songbook, I'd say Marissa Mulder's "The Songs of Tom Waits" is worth your attention. It's a solid piece of musical theatre and a worthy addition to the Gaslight Cabaret Festival lineup.

Marissa Mulder's "The Songs of Tom Waits" will be performed again on Friday and Saturday, February 28 and March 1, at 8 PM at The Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle in the Central West End. The Gaslight Cabaret Festival continues through April 25. For more information: Note that the Gaslight has no parking lot, so you'll want to arrive early to grab a spot on the street. Fortunately the adjoining West End Grill has a nice assortment of food and drink to occupy you until show time.

Song Llst:
Emotional Weather Report
Better Off Without A Wife
Ol '55
Jersey Girl
Downtown Train
A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun
Rainbow Sleeves
Broken Bicycles
Day After Tomorrow
I'm Still Here
Encore: Looking For The Heart Of Saturday Night / Ol '55 / Anywhere I Lay My Head

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