Dunstan Playhouse
June 17, 2018

During the period that she has been artistic director of the Cabaret Festival, Ali McGregor has always programmed a tribute show to a famous songwriter performed by an ensemble of the cream of the crop of artists at the festival. Jacques Brel and Kurt Weill have featured at recent festivals, but this year’s selection of Tom Waits was inspired. Waits represents the best of Americana, writing songs about people living at the margins of American society – the losers, gamblers, hookers and petty criminals. However, Waits writes about his characters with such affection that he cloaks his anti-heroes with a dignity that draws you to their stories. ‘Waitophiles’ McGregor and musical director Charly Zastrau, in combination with a well-chosen cast of misfit performers who could have come straight from the pages of a Waits song, presented a seamless tribute and the best one of its kind in recent memory at the Cabfest.

Leading the performing pack was Mikelangelo, who looks like the love child of Elvis Presley and Boris Yeltsin, and one whose gravelly baritone was a perfect fit for Waits’ up-tempo numbers like When You Dream, Going Out West, and Hold On. With a Catwoman-like figure-hugging outfit and a Betty Boo bouffant, Carla Lippis is a sultry, striking woman blessed with a powerful voice, and she brought the house down with Make it Rain and my favourite Waits song, Christmas Card to a Hooker in Minneapolis. McGregor herself chimed in with a sultry rendition of Ice Cream Man as did the always intriguing and bold Joey Arias with This One’s From the Heart. However, this show was also great theatre evidenced by Butt Kapinski’s inspired recitation of What’s He Building in There? and acrobat and wheelchair user Lachlan Rickus swinging on ropes to Blue Valentine. Rounding out the cast was the legendary cabaret performer Queenie van de Zandt. I had never seen her before and while I loved her Chocolate Jesus, her raw, poignant performance of Martha outdid versions I’ve heard from Bette Midler and Tim Buckley, and brought a tear to my eye.

Credit also must go to Zastrau for his fine arrangements. Complementing the traditional piano, guitars and drums were a collection of rarely heard instruments that fuelled the down and dirty atmosphere including a piano accordion, melodica and especially a musical saw. Everything gelled, the performers ‘nailed it’ and the audience bellowed in appreciation.