REVIEW: Starman (Auckland Live International Cabaret Season)

Review by James Wenley

[The Stars Look Very Different Today]

We begin with a voice-over with some out-of-this-world numbers: the number of people that have lived in all of human history is the same number of stars that there are in our universe. There’s a planet out there for each of us.

Here’s something else amazing. What were the odds, out of all of human history, that we were lucky enough to have lived at the same time as Mr David Bowie?

For the first three quarters of Starman, though his music and starpower imbues the show, Bowie’s name goes unmentioned.

Taking a cue perhaps from Bowie’s alien character Thomas Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth (a character Bowie revisited in before his death in his Lazarus Broadway project), Sven Ratzke’s Starman is a time-travelling visitor from another dimension, sucked up and spat into our galaxy via a white hole.

Ratzke’s costuming evokes the glam-rock Ziggy Stardust era, and there are moments of uncanny in his wistful vocals, but this is no standard Bowie tribute show (which began touring prior to Bowie’s return to the cosmos). Ratzke’s Starman may have descended from the Bowie-genus, but he’s doing his own thing, a creature unto himself.

Ratzke and his three-piece band take a deconstructionist approach to their arrangements. The titular song becomes a moody ballad. Ratzke savours the words and the drama of Life on Mars. Later, he says that the listening to the songs of David Bowie are like reading pages out of his diary. It’s clear there’s a level of defamiliarization going on, so we can listen to the poetry of the lyrics anew. Its all very leisurely, and reverent, but at times you wish that they might speed up the tempo and give us a real Let’s Dance moment.

If someone had told me beforehand that Ratzke spends most of the show talking, rather than singing, I would have been dubious. Perhaps you are too now that I’ve told you. But, it’s okay, really. If you are doing a Bowie cabaret, this really is an inspired way to do it. He tells us stories –rambling, Dadaist, Alice in Wonderland fever dreams with missing camels and an Andy Warhol cameo. It’s witty, off-the-wall, and very funny.

As he’s weaving a tale about icebergs and pealing Belgian potatoes, part of the fun is trying to work out which song from the Bowie oeuvre this can possibly be segue-waying into.

Ratzke strikes a charismatic rapport with the audience, walking through us and incorporating people in his storytelling. I wonder what he made of us? At times he seemed genuinely bemused – even floored – by the alien Aucklanders. We must have looked like a boorish and badly-behaved bunch. He commented on how many people kept walking in and out. Ushers were kept busy asking people to put their phones away. Poor form Auckland.

This aside, Starman is an auspicious start to the 2017 Auckland Live International Cabaret Festival. Starman has two more nights, and then the Festival runs for another week via a superpower team-up of Auckland venues (Auckland Live, Q, and The Basement). Check out the line-up here.

If you get on Ratzke’s wavelength, Starman is an excellent way to appreciate Bowie’s genius, with an eccentric sprinkling of Ratzke’s own stardust.

Starman plays at the Town Hall Concert Chamber until 17th September. 

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