An exhilarating reinterpretation via varying tempos of “Ashes to Ashes’” and superb performer Sven Ratzke’s powerful emotionally fluctuating vocals, graceful gestures and entrancing dancing is a showstopper and one of the many highlights of Where Are We Now. This enthralling full-length concert of David Bowie songs is an inspired survey ranging from the glorious promise of “Space Oddity” to “Lazarus”’s elegiac summation. Every monumental lyric is uniquely and beautifully phrased.
Possessed of an awesome soaring tenor voice, the magnetic Dutch-German Mr. Ratzke offers not a conventional cover band-style tribute show with slavish imitation, but instead a thrilling performance piece. His vivid singing is characterized by his slight accent, occasional hints of Bowie’s timbre and shades of Anthony Newley, an early Bowie influence. Ratzke is accompanied by only the impish silent foil and beaming German virtuoso Christian Pabst on grand piano who enchants with his sustained high caliber musicianship and jazzy solos.
Clad in costume designers Thierry Mugler and Armin van Zutphen’s gorgeous blue and red taut jumpsuits and their flowing blue coats, one with padded arched shoulders, along with shoe designer Jan Jansen’s luminous red and tweaked black combat boots, the lithe Ratzke with his upswept silvery coif and regal features visually evokes Bowie while always emitting his own distinctive, witty and sensual charm.
Conceived by Ratzke with additional text by Philippe Claudel, the repertoire of songs with their novel musical arrangements is punctuated by cheeky patter and wild surrealistic reveries personably delivered by this spellbinding raconteur. The tale of a long flight to Australia is dotted with wry observations and a dreamy episode at a Melbourne nightclub made of cardboard with an enigmatic elegant Jazz Age-style couple in attendance. Bowie and Iggy Pop’s sojourn to 1970’s Berlin is given a fantastical enactment. An acid-fueled Soho afterparty with pink cats sitting at a bar is hauntingly detailed. Bowie’s long-time residency in Manhattan is recounted by way of a cascade of memories. There’s a comic reminiscence of emailing Bowie’s management for permission to use Bowie’s songs for an earlier show, Starman. Ratzke was performing it in Europe on January 10, 2016, the day Bowie died at the age of 69.
“The girl with the mousy hair” from “Life on Mars” becomes a referred to character throughout and especially during that song’s intense treatment. Equally as effective are the majestic renditions of “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Rock and Roll Suicide” and “Where Are We Now.” “Let’s Dance” becomes a swirling epic. The “Jean Genie” takes on the scope of a production number. “Heroes” is tenderly performed in both German and English.
Director Dirk Groeneveld achieves a theatrical dimension of sound and vision. Mr. Groeneveld has Ratzke on a stool and Mr. Pabst on piano strategically positioned. Ratzke is in perpetual motion and occasionally sitting for reflective passages. The stage’s back wall has black split curtains with a shredded silver curtain in the center. It’s a striking backdrop from which Ratzke makes grand entrances. Dramatic lighting and the canny use of a smoke machine adds further presentational flourishes.
“Let’s dive into the imaginary universe of David Bowie,” says Ratzke at the beginning of Where Are We Now. Two hours later, with the wistful finale of “Absolute Beginners,” we’re still ready to continue diving.
Where Are We Now (through December 21, 2019)
La MaMa’s Downstairs Theatre, 66 East 4 Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.sven-Ratzke.com
Running time: two hours including one intermission