Cabaret performer’s new show at La MaMa blends Bowie tribute with the personal

Cabaret performer Sven Ratzke. (Photo by Bob Krasner)

BY BOB KRASNER | There are a couple of things that the Dutch/German cabaret performer Sven Ratzke would like you to know at the start.

In town for a two-week run at La Mama for his show “Where Are We Now,” featuring the songs of David Bowie, Ratzke is quick to mention that his performance is “not that of a cover band – that is totally not what I am doing.” And he’s a little tired of being asked, “what’s your favorite David Bowie song?”

The very striking and stylish Ratzke, who has performed to steady acclaim around the world, previously presented “Starman,” a tribute to Bowie at Joe’s Pub that had the blessing of the man himself. That show was touring Europe when the news came of Bowie’s passing.

“When we lost Bowie the show became more of a comfort,” Ratzke muses. Rather than continue in that vein, he took a break from Bowie after completing the tour to present a new work, “Homme Fatale.” But then the time seemed right to re-examine Bowie’s catalog in a simpler manner than the band format of “Starman.”

Working with just pianist Christian Pabst, Ratzke’s new show is, he states, “Fifty percent Bowie and fifty percent me.” Presenting each song with an accompanying monologue, he mixes fact and fiction as a tool to examine each piece. While there are certainly echoes of Bowie’s voice in his interpretations, this is not a performer whose main goal is to mimic the originals. Rather, his intent is hopefully to share what he has found out about the songs through the process of performing and examining them.

“There were a lot of his songs that I didn’t understand before I sang them, ” he notes. For example, “Sweet Thing/Candidate,” one of the lesser known songs from the “Diamond Dogs” album, was one that the singer was “always intrigued by, but didn’t understand. And I had to understand it in order to sing it.”

“I discovered the layers of the song – it’s an imaginary world that he steps into,” relates Ratzke. The story that he tells prior to performing the song relates to his interpretation on stage.

Other songs are given unexpected treatments, such as “Let’s Dance,” a number that Ratzke recognizes as one that many find trivial. But in his slowed down, percussive treatment the pop concoction gains a previously unheard gravity. Part of the credit for this goes to his musical collaborator, composer/pianist Pabst.

Ratzke’s new show opens Dec. 11 at La MaMa. (Photo by Bob Krasner)

The collaborative process of finding the arrangements and musical backdrops for Ratzke’s voice often comes down to the singer, who does not play an instrument, relating what he is looking for musically in visual terms, leaving Pabst to find a way to interpret his marching orders. Take “Rock and Roll Suicide,” which Ratzke explained that he wanted the music to sound like, “a shabby, empty nightclub in Berlin, where backstage a performer is looking into a mirror. There are French cigarettes and makeup, and a face that is totally white, disappearing into smoke.”

“It’s only a piano and a voice, so we need to take everything out of that piano and that voice,” explains Ratzke. “I have to find a way to bring the stories to life.” Bowie’s songs “bring people together,” he states. “In a time when everyone is so egotistical, his songs are universal.” The title of the show, also taken from a Bowie song, is something that Ratzke feels more people should ponder, especially younger folks. “Where am I now, where am I going?” he asks.

There will be two more legs of this tour and then, “this chapter is finished,” he says. But for now, he notes, “It gives me a lot of joy and comfort to sing these songs.”

“By the way,” he adds, before leaving, “Heroes is my favorite Bowie song.”

“Where Are We Now” runs from 12/11 to 12/21.  Information is available at lamama.org/where-are-we-now/