CHANGES: A Theatrical Tribute to the Music of David Bowie

It’s all about the music

By Sally McKenzie

David Bowie was a theatrical performer, so it makes sense for Kendall-Jane Rundell and her team at Bare Naked Theatre to deliver the music of Bowie in a theatrical format. They promised  ‘a personal, raw account of storytelling through contemporary and physical theatre’, but unfortunately I felt that the ‘storytelling’ aspect fell short in many aspects. The music, however, particularly the magnificent accompaniment by Robot Child, was pure Bowie indulgence in every way.

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Musically, this show was quite an ambitious project, as it included roughly 35 Bowie songs, no dialogue. I was in music heaven. Songs included Bowie’s better-known hits such as the title song ‘Changes’, ‘ Space Oddity’, ‘Life on Mars’, ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘China Girl’, ‘Fashion’, ‘Starman’,  ‘Under Pressure’ , ‘Rebel Rebel’ and ‘Golden Years’.  Some of his more rare gems such as ‘Oh You Pretty Things’, ‘Where Are They Now’ and ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ also played an important part in this musical tribute. With the absence of a conductor, the band executed every song with confidence and flair. The transitions between songs was mostly smooth with only the occasional brief pause while musicians changed instruments or to allow for dramatic pauses on stage.

Robot Child with guest musician Matt Arter (guitar, sax, harmonica) has one of the finest line-ups of musicians I have seen. The arrangements were very close to the original Bowie tunes. The sounds produced on the keyboards of Owen James and David Hartney were great replicas of those included on Bowie’s albums, and the piano solos played by James in ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Oh You Pretty Things’ were a highlight. Waleed Aly is indeed a virtuoso on the electric guitar. His solos were a feature of the night as they soared through the venue.

Together Dan Slater (drumkit) and Daniel Lijnders (bass guitar) provided a rock solid foundation for the band, executing every riff and rhythm with absolute accuracy and a great understanding of the vast collection of Bowie’s ‘substyles’ of alternative rock. I also particularly enjoyed the backing vocals provided by Hartney and Arter. Those added harmonies and the conviction and passion by these musicians were a huge asset to the show.

The main vocalists of the night were Jeff Wortman (who was also the music director and the regular lead vocalist of Robot Child) and Rundell (director). Wortman’s vocals were impressive. I was amazed by his vocal stamina as he sang in almost every song – and with 7 or 8 shows remaining, has a huge job ahead of him. Rundell was the other lead vocalist, and although her voice suited the range and androgyny of some of the Bowie songs,  she unfortunately did not have the vocal flexibility or security required. Her intonation wasn’t always accurate and I felt her voice lacked the power and impact required to match the energy and professionalism of the band.

With no program, director’s or musical director’s notes and no biographies of cast for the show, I wondered initially: what was the original concept for Changes? What was the purpose?  I waited for the actors on stage to tell me a story but struggled to connect to any of the themes. The six other performers in the cast portrayed the ‘fans’, ‘party-goers’, ‘drug-takers’ etc. in Bowie’s life, and attempted to provide a more abstract account of Bowie’s songs and lyrics with physical movement – some choreographed, some not.  Costumes by Jessica Allie were simple and neutral, and make up was ‘Bowie-esque’, but the performers seemed to lack an overall sense of purpose and commitment. Jacqui Essing was the stand-out in this hard-working but under-utilised ensemble. She looked completely comfortable on stage and was the most confident with her movement.

Lighting and sound was fabulous. A wall of light rigged behind the band shone into the audience as if to represent the ‘outer space’ theme in the relevant parts of the show. Large hanging spot lights were scattered and clearly visible over the largely open stage, giving the sense of Hollywood or TV studio. Handling such a big sound in a high-ceiling venue is a huge challenge, and LSS Studios triumphed again. The band was mixed perfectly and the overall sound was at ‘Rock Concert’ level, which was much needed. At times though, it was difficult to hear the words of the vocalists. Bowie’s lyrics are often abstract and difficult to understand, however, so this wasn’t a major deterrent.

Admittedly, this is not the cohesive, meaningful or enlightened dramatic performance the publicity suggested, but I was truly impressed by the hundreds of hours put in to rehearsing and performing such an epic collection of songs, and if you are a Bowie fan, you will revel in the sound of this show.

Changes: A Theatrical Tribute is at Gasworks Arts Park until the 6th August. Book at http://www.gasworks.org.au/event/changes/ or barenakedtheatre@gmail.com

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