Volume 75, Number 19 | Sep. 28 - Oct. 04, 2005

Cabaret

Stewart D’arrieta
“Belly of a Drunken Piano”
SoHo Playhouse
15 Vandam Street
Tickets $30
Through January
212-691-1555; sohoplayhouse.com

Photo by Michael Clayton-Jones

In “Belly of a Drunken Piano,” Stewart D’Arrietta pays tender tribute to the music of Tom Waits.

Looking for the heart of Tom Waits

By Jim Meskauskas

Ever since the surprise hit “Mamma Mia!,” a thinly plotted but entertaining show built around a loose collection of ABBA songs, first took up residence on the Great White Way, a questionable breed of musical theater called the “jukebox musical” has followed in its wake.

Not surprisingly, a number of “Mama Mia”’s progeny have flopped. The Beach Boys-inspired “Good Vibrations” closed after just two months. “Movin’ Out,” based on the hit-list of Billy Joel with direction and choreography by Twyla Tharp will close this December. “And Lennon,” which opened August 15th of this year to some of the more painful reviews in recent memory, closed after just six weeks.

“Belly of a Drunken Piano,” the cabaret-set review of Tom Waits’ work by Australian musician Stewart D’Arrietta, might at first blush seem like another member of this dubious class of musical. But the off-Broadway show stands in a class by itself, having neither the form nor the structure of its distantly related kin on Broadway. It’s even enjoyed some success: after an initial five-week run, the Soho Playhouse extended it through January.

When D’Arrietta appears on the dimly lit stage wearing an understated suit and hat, he immediately opens up to the audience the smoky world that Waits’ music evokes. Though a bar full of burning cigarettes is no longer possible in Bloomberg’s New York, D’Arrietta’s whisky voice and gritty music calls up that scene effortlessly.

His performance and that of his three-piece band—expertly filled out by Philip Rex on double bass, Anthony Barrett on guitar, and Danny Fischer on drums—is not one of impersonation, but enthusiastic homage. D’Arrietta, whose face and physique resembles a cross between Terrence Stamp and an extra from a Roman epic, is not trying to make us think that he is Mr. Tom Waits. Rather, he is trying to make us see in Waits’ music what he himself has seen. As Mr. Barrett told me after the performance, the show is really a celebration of how much they love Waits’ music and the effect it has had on their lives.

And celebrate these guys do. They play their hearts out. You get the sense that these guys would play with as much heart and energy if the audience were one thousand strong or just the guy working the lights (in fact, there were only 14 of us in the audience). The sorely out-of-tune piano gives the music that carnival quality that is found in so much of Waits’ music, but some pieces would have benefited from more tonal precision and accuracy, like the hopeful ballad of wayward lovers, “Hold On” or the tearfully moving “Tom Traubert’Blues (Waltzing Matilda)” performed during the encore, one of the saddest pieces of music written since Albinoni/Giazotto’s “Adagio in G Minor.”

Vocally, D’Arrietta is nearly a dead ringer for Waits. Maybe a little more gravely than Waits himself is in some instances, but with his voice and the skill of his back-up band, this is as close you’ll get to to hearing Waits live—without actually hearing Waits live.

There is no real narrative to speak of here, something that could be said of a number of the jukebox musicals mentioned above, nor is there any real logic to the order of songs performed. The scraps of story interspersed throughout the performance are biographical elements of Waits’ life, both factual (“Mr. Waits was born in Los Angeles”) and mythical (“in a place called Pamona, on the outskirts of the greatest city of cracked angels, one Tom Waits was born through a smoke ring… in the back seat of a yellow cab that was parked in a hospital loading zone with the meter still blinking. He emerged needing a shave. The first words he muttered [were] ‘Times Square and step on it!’”).

The audience is also treated to brief glimpses of Mr. D’Arrietta’s own life as seen from the end of the bar. Like an affable and unpredictable barfly found night in and night out in the same seat under the same sepia toned cone of light, he tells us about his wheelchair-bound friend, Doug (“it was tough for Doug; he had a name in the past tense”), that he and his “mates” used to carry around so that he could join them all in mischief, followed by a song that musters up the feelings he has for this friend, “Kentucky Avenue.” We hear about his one-armed, flatulent piano teacher from whom the scent of perfume and body air was strong enough to “knock the buzzard off the side of a shit-wagon” that then brings us to an up-tempo version of “The Piano has been Drinking (Not Me).” At one point during the show, with the sorrowful languor of melting ice in an empty tumbler of bourbon, Mr. D’Arrietta performs a heartbreaking rendition of Waits’ cover of “Somewhere” from “West Side Story,” dedicated to his close friend Leigh Russell, an Australian actor mostly likely known only to American audiences as the skinhead Sonny Jim in the early Russell Crowe vehicle, “Romper Stomper,” who died suddenly last year of a heart attack.

For an hour and forty-five minutes, these are the kinds of musical memory flashes we are treated to, each emphasized with another Waits tune.

There is so much vitality and truth in the performance, there is no doubt about the great deal of love for Mr. D’Arrietta’s inspiration. He shares Waits’ attraction to the honest, fractured characters that inhabit the narrative of ordinary misery; the bruised, chipped humans that serve, as Waits himself once said, as “the old irritation-in-the-oyster-making-the pearl.”

The grit here makes for a beautiful jewel. Fan or no, Waits’ sound is so unique, and well enough recreated here, that you’ll be inspired to seek out the real thing after the show. (I dusted off “Frank’s Wild Years” and “Small Change,” and turned up the volume on later work like 1999’s “Mule Variations,” where the rocking “Big in Japan”—the pre-encore closing number—can be heard.)

D’Arrietta and his crew could be termed a tribute band, but this is not your typical cover band performance. “Belly of a Drunken Piano” is not like a Super Diamond or Dread Zeppelin show, where the band’s shtick is covering other famous musical acts. It is a veneration of a very talented maverick musician by other musicians.

If you do go on a night that is not well-attended, you might be able to join the boys for a drink at the small bar, where the evening’s host, Gabe Voytas, will make you feel right at home. (After the performance I attended, Mr. D’Arrietta and his band, convivial fellows all, invited my friend and me to share a bottle of a Southern Australian Sauvignon Blanc after the show.) But should anyone ask what you’re up to, tell him the piano has been drinking, not you.

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