Marissa Mulder Rolls Up Her Rainbow Sleeves, Raises Her Own Personal Bar, and Conquers Tom Waits Classics at the Metropolitan Room
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
Observing the evolution of young Marissa Mulder's burgeoning cabaret career is like watching a high jumper going for the gold at the Olympic Games. With every show or performance, she and the creative teams around her set the bar just a little bit higher and she keeps clearing the dang thing. But with her new Tom Waits tribute show, which opened last night at the Metropolitan Room (and continues tonight through Saturday night March 30, all at 7pm), the bar was raised multiple notches, and damn if she didn't clear it with inches to spare. With Tom . . . In His Own Words/The Songs of Tom Waits, Mulder has vaulted herself into major cabaret performer territory . . . and even managed to stick the landing.
Of all the cabaret singers in all the clubs in all the world, you'd never imagine walking into a cabaret room and hearing a singer like Marissa Mulder taking on Tom Waits. Mulder's voice is a cross between Blossom Dearie's girlish croon and a heroine in a Disney animated movie, while Waits sounds like a Bob Dylan/Joe Cocker hybrid who smokes two packs a day. Like Dylan, Waits may be an incredibly quirky and poetic lyricist, but I've always found it difficult warming up to vocals that sound like an assault on your senses. That's one of the reasons why I was so dazzled last year by British singer Barb Jungr's incredible interpretations of Bob Dylan songs (also at the Met Room). Mulder didn't totally re-imagine Waits' songs the way Jungr did with Dylan's, but the solid arrangements (from Musical Director/Pianist Jon Weber) and Mulder's angelic vocals--that were tinged with a slightly harder edge and deeper sound than she has produced before--made these intricate, down and dirty story-songs fresh, accessible, and totally Marissa. In fact, Mulder is one of a growing number of terrific young cabaret singers who are celebrating the great pop/rock singer-songwriters of the 1960s, '70s and '80s and creating the "New" Great American Songbook.
Given the singer and the material she presented, this was one of the bravest and gutsiest performances one can experience in cabaret. Mulder took up this daunting challenge head-on, rolled up her "rainbow sleeves" and pulled it off. Some of the credit for that should go to fellow singer Lauren Fox (2012 MAC-Award winner for "Best Female Debut"), who made an excellent cabaret directorial debut with this show. As a singer, Fox is specializing in presentations featuring intense singer-songwriters of the 1960s to the present day (Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, the raft of pop rockers from Laurel Canyon), but she is also an experienced actress who clearly helped Mulder raise her interpretive, emotional, and storytelling game with this set. Fox also brought along two-thirds of what has become her regular band in Weber and bassist Ritt Henn (with Mike Rosengarten joining them on guitar), and the trio provided Mulder with a solid underpinning of subtle support throughout.
Wearing a form-fitting, floor length black cocktail dress that provided a sexy contrast to her angelic face and honey auburn hair, Mulder entered the room mic in hand and set the stage for the "In His Words" conceit, delivering Waits' talky and jazzy "Emotional Weather Report" (from the 1975 live album Nighthawks at the Diner) like a 1950s beat poet. Putting on an adorable southern accent, Mulder then played a bit naughtily against her type on Waits' soliloquy intro to "Better Off Without A Wife (also from Nighthawks), during which she made talking about "making a scene with a magazine" at 2:30 in the morning and not "tying myself up first" sound deliciously auto-erotic. On Waits' classic mid-tempo, ramblin' man song, "Ol '55" (from 1973's Closing Time), Mulder's interpretation was so seductive, you'd think she was the "Lady Luck" in the lyric that you want to pick up and drive down the freeway with as the sun was coming up.
Fox and Mulder crafted a script that combined some interesting biographical info and factoids (i.e., Waits' take on Bruce Springsteen's version of "Jersey Girl," and providing insight into Waits' love affair with Ricky Lee Jones), with lead-ins to some songs that were actually Waits' words and that Mulder expressed with charming perfection. "You can learn a lot about a woman by gettin' smashed with her," Mulder (as Waits) said, as if she was a worldly wise older man, before a powerfully sensual take on "A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun" (from 1978's Blue Valentine). But even that solid number seemed to pale in comparison to Mulder's absolutely beautiful rendition of "Rainbow Sleeves" (which Waits wrote for Bette Midler, but is clearly a lyric about Jones and her demons, and a song that Ricky Lee "masochistically" sang in concerts, as Mulder pointed out). "Sleeves" came across as the quintessential Marissa Mulder song, as she completely made it her own. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
The second half of the set continued to soar with one wonderfully intricate interpretation after another. "Protest songs are like throwing peanuts at a gorilla," Mulder as Waits said, before bringing just the right touch of emotion and perspective to "Day After Tomorrow," a song about a young soldier aching to come home from war. One of the highlights here was Marissa humming along with Henn's bass licks in a nifty duet before the song's last verse. On "Alice" and "I'm Still Here," two of the songs Waits wrote with his wife Kathleen Brennen for the 2002 play Alice, Mulder was compellingly haunting and emotional, and worked the lower part of her vocal register--another challenge for a usually light, heady singer--to great effect. After a nifty take on "Looking For the Heart Of Saturday Night" (with just Rosengarten's guitar) and a brief reprise of "Ol '55," Mulder set up her finale with another fascinating Waits quote.
"It stops becoming something you do--it becomes something you are," Marissa as a melancholy Waits offered, about the personal toll performing on the road can take on a soul. With that Mulder put down the microphone, walked into the middle of the Met Room audience and sang the introspective ballad "Anywhere I Lay My Head" (from 1985's Rain Dogs). It not only brought the show full circle in terms of style and staging, but ending her show sans mic was Mulder's statement about the increasing strength of her vocals and her growing confidence as a performer.
It must be that singing and performing is no longer something Marissa Mulder does, but something she is--in the best sense of the word.