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Paulanne Simmons

Singing Waits in SoHo

Stewart Clayton as Tom Waits. Photo by Michael Clayton-Jones.

“Belly of a Drunken Piano”
Written and directed by Stewart D’Arrietta
SoHo Playhouse
15 Vandam St., between 6th and Varick
Wed. thru Sat 10:30 p.m., Sun. 8:30 p.m.
$30 Fri. and Sat., $25 all other performances
(212) 691-1555 or www.sohoplayhouse.com
Opened Aug. 28, closes Oct. 9
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Sept. 10

From the heart of Australia, Stewart D’Arrietta comes to the Huron Club basement of the SoHo Playhouse where he skillfully and faithfully re-creates the grim world of Tom Waits.

But “Belly of a Drunken Piano” is more than a tribute to a genius who blended the musical idiom of jazz, blues, cabaret and Broadway with the poetic vision of men like Bob Dylan or Jack Kerouac. It’s two hours of witnessing a fascinating raconteur who at one moment delivers a lesson on hard drinking and the next talks about his education at a Catholic school; or focuses on the failures of the Bush Administration, then a while later digresses on the problems of marriage.

Stewart first appears in a white suit, red vest and tie, shades and a dark fedora. Much of the apparel is eventually discarded, but the hat – most expressively – remains as Stewart tears his way through the Waits songbook, wailing, growling, chanting and pounding the ivory (forget about tickling) in a virtuoso performance that takes one’s breath away.

Stewart’s voice and piano are backed up by three equally amazing performers – Anthony “Bazz” Barrett on guitar, Philip Rex on bass and Danny Fischer on drums. Together they rock the house until it seems as if the walls of this intimate bar might well burst.

And then there’s the message. Waits writes about God, who is “away on business” and Jesus, who “wanted just a little more time.” But he’s also in love with a New Jersey girl (his future wife and collaborator Kathleen Brennan) and he’s tormented by a girl who’s “an invitation to the blues.”

When Stewart sings “and we’ll glide all the way down the drainpipe to New Orleans in the fall,” he puts his hat over his heart in homage to that beleaguered city. He says he’s sure Waits must feel the same about the city that was the birthplace of rhythm and blues. (Waits played Zack, an out-of-work DJ, in the 1986 film, “Down By Law,” set in a seedy section of New Orleans.)

When is it Waits speaking? When is it Stewart? It’s not always easy to tell. And by the end of the evening, most people will be so engrossed they won’t really care.

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