Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cabaret of Souls

Not the State Theater in Falls Church, but a clever forgery!

Imagine, if you will: "American Idol," set in Hell. (Wait, am I being redundant?) And the Keeper of the Underworld, and his two Assistants, were there to judge and then mock each unwilling "contestant" after hearing their tales of woe. Like a dour, snarky Greek chorus, teasing them with their own pitiful words. You'd almost feel sorry for them, if it wasn't so funny!

Sound familiar?

No, there's no "yo, dawg" here awaiting successful performers, no slurred words from prescription medications, and that harsh review you hear wasn't from Simon, but his Master. And these performers were not prone to bad haircuts and off key notes, so I guess that's where the similarity ends.

This was the the basic premise- a talent show among the many lost souls consigned to eternal torture, that made for a darkly humorous and entertaining midsummer's evening. Leave it to Richard Thompson, and his hyper-creative mind to write a piece to honor the mastery of his old friend and colleague Danny Thompson on the occasion of his 70th birthday. The event was held at the State Theater in scenic State College, PA, for the International Society of Bassists 2009 convention.

The ISB's Madeleine Crouch, with guest of honor Danny Thompson, and conductor Peter Askim

The rest of the stellar cast included veteran RT collaborators Judith Owen, who, along with Richard, sang the songs of the damned, reluctantly trying to appease or amuse their captors, but to no avail. Percussionist extraordinaire Debra Dobkin, and multi-instrumentalist Pete Zorn capably assisted the Keeper, Harry Shearer, in further abasing and toying with the forlorn souls. Big Danny, of course, gently massaged and stroked his sturdy acoustic bass, while conductor Peter Askim led an 11 piece string orchestra, creating an eerily palpable musical tapestry on which each scenario unfolded: tales of heartbroken lovers, cosmetic surgery addicts, murderers, religious hypocrites, war profiteers, and other denizens of the dark realm, each protesting their fate and hoping in vain for redemption that never comes...

This much-anticipated event went off virtually without a hitch, in spite of a truncated rehearsal schedule (Pete Zorn hadn't even seen the score until three days before the show!) and a last minute change of venue. As per usual, Simon (Tassano, not the permanently perturbed Cowell!) provided outstanding sound quality so that every word, aside, and note carried to every seat in the auditorium. And as the show progressed, we laughed harder and harder as each tale was told.

I never knew that Richard Thompson's fan base overlapped with Slayer! Can a folk/metal tour be far behind?

It was a very unique and intimate performance, and the performers were kind enough to oblige us some friendly words and greetings after the show. At about this point, Lisa wryly observed "there's a thin line between fan and stalker," easily ranking among the best lines of the evening! But everyone seemed to be pleased with the show, and welcomed the fans after. Harry Shearer, in particular, appeared as much the awestruck fan as the rest of us; when I asked him whether he'd picked up any bass techniques from Danny, he grinned, replying "DUH! Why else do you think I'd be doing this?"

As the audience congratulated and chatted up the talented cast, another member of the Virginia contingent presented Richard, Danny and Judith with some beautiful pictures, signed by many of the fans who gathered outside the theater before the doors opened.
All seemed genuinely relieved that it was over, the strain of putting on such an ambitious project mixing theatrics, song, spoken word, and no less than 16 musicians clearly having taken their most heroic efforts.

And having very successfully performed this most unusual show, my thoughts immediately went to staging and recording the Cabaret of Souls with full dress, props, and backgrounds, a sentiment echoed by Richard's longtime friend and manager, Tim Bernett. He stated that it was certainly worth pursuing, if they can get sufficient backing. For my money, if record companies can pay millions to lobby over recording rights, or hyping hack "flavor of the day" cookie cutter pop stars, the least they can do is to support some worthy artists at the top of their game performing a clever, funny and engaging piece that will endure and entertain for years to come.

My thanks to Madeleine Crouch for her kind assistance in securing tickets, t shirts, and programs. And as always a tip of the hat and my compliments to master shutterbug Gus for providing these shots from the show, as our unofficial roving photographer!

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