Dutch-German cabaret superstar Sven Ratzke knits David Bowie songs together with elaborate monologues and stage patter in Where Are We Now, which just completed a run at La Mama in New York City. Equally impressive, pianist Christian Pabst is much more than an accompanist; in theatrical terms, I have to call this a two-hander. La Mama’s basement performance space is a good size for a show that’s both intimate and vividly theatrical.
For a hint of what kind of performer Ratzke is: My wife, knowing nothing about him, told me excitedly during intermission, “He should play Hedwig.” But he has played the title role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, for several years in Europe. I wasn’t at all shocked to learn he’s lately also been cast as Frank-N-Furter in an upcoming Dutch stage production of The Rocky Horror Show.
But Where Are We Now is a different kind of spectacle. Ratzke isn’t playing a character, he’s himself, and what a big personality that is.
He doesn’t try to embody Bowie (though at times, as in “Let’s Dance,” he seems effortlessly to channel Bowie’s baritone). Rather the show is at once an ardent tribute to the genius of Bowie’s music and a vivid efflorescence of two real and present artistic personalities. Ratzke the spotlight star enchants with his big supple voice and a persona that’s charismatic yet sincere. Just as important, he’s interesting, with pithy observations to make about the cities and cultures he’s explored on tour.
Pabst, for his part, offers brilliantly inventive piano arrangements that fuse jazz, pop, and classical techniques, leavening all with digressions and substitutions. At times his cadenza-like solos left us open-mouthed.
Ratzke’s earlier Bowie show, Starman, an Edinburgh Fringe Festival winner, focused on the late star’s classic ’70s work. The current show ranges through the decades. It opens with “The Man Who Sold the World,” an early song that gained relevance for a new generation when Nirvana covered it on MTV’s Unplugged in 1993. Ratzke and Pabst’s arrangement springs the first lines on you as a surprise, for it dispenses with the classic three-note riff. That clues you in to the creative spirit of the whole show: songs stylistically re-conceived for renewed impact, yet reverential in the best possible way.
“Where Are We Now,” from Bowie’s 2013 “comeback” album The Next Day, made an impression on me at the time more through Tony Oursler’s avant-garde video than in itself. But in Ratzke’s hands its minimalist lyrics and mournful melody add up to an existential epic. Some numbers undergo more radical changes. The melodically minimal, Brian Eno-produced, industrial-sounding “Hallo Spaceboy” from the ’90s reveals a humane, yearning quality through Pabst’s kaleidoscopic piano runs and Ratske’s romantic vocals.
Other numbers hew somewhat closer to the flavors of the originals, like “Space Oddity” and the “Sweet Thing/Candidate” medley. “Jean Genie” keeps its blues-rock vibe. But those too reveal new and often fascinating insights into the songs.
The pair save two of the very strongest numbers for encores. “Life on Mars” with its unforgettable melody is Bowie at his most inscrutably passionate, while “Absolute Beginners” represents his most mask-free, heart-on-sleeve mode. Ratzke knocked both out of the park.
In one of his monologues the singer talked about some personal similarities he’s noted between himself and David Bowie. The key resonance, though, is something he didn’t have to mention, since it was in the spotlight from start to finish, and that’s theatricality. I mean the best kind of theatricality, which shows us fundamental facets of our selves in mirrors of many kinds – close-up, funhouse, true.
Bowie’s lyrics can be cryptic. Referencing the line “Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow” from “Life On Mars,” a YouTube commenter wrote, “I don’t know what he’s talking about, but I know what he means.” Sven Ratzke knows too. Be sure to catch this show if it comes to your part of the world. It’ll be back in NYC in May 2020.