The Piano Has Been Drinking: A Tom Waits Cabaret
Friday, April 22, 8 p.m.
Arcana Bar & Lounge, Durham

If you’re putting on a Tom Waits cabaret—as Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern did at Mystery Brewing Company last Saturday, and will do again at Arcana in Durham on Friday—you’re going to need more than one vocalist. Actually, you’re going to need more than one band. It’s hard to believe the same mind that produced the wistful heartache ballad “I Hope I Don’t Fall in Love With You” went on to pen the jaded observations and acid sentiments of Waits’s later career.

Waits has undergone several transformations: the polite, jazz-inflected Tin Pan Alley numbers on 1973’s Closing Time, the boozy bonhomie of the lowlife narratives on Nighthawks at the Diner, the film noir nightscapes on Foreign Affairs, and the carny surrealism and junkyard clang that stretches from 1983’s Swordfishtrombones to 2011’s Bad As Me, with sonic textures and views on humankind as abrasive as Waits’s sandblasted voice.

So Little Green Pig was on the right track when it placed three bands in different sections of the Hillsborough brewery, and a dozen singers on certain prismatic pages from Waits’s songbook. On Waits’s 1977 duet with Bette Midler, “I Never Talk to Strangers,” Jeff Alguire and Dana Marks had the exchange of pickup lines down to the between-the-lyrics patter. Anastasia Maddox and bassist Hugh Crumley’s band turned “Gun Street Girl” into a call-and-response with the enthusiastic crowd, and Jaybird O’Berski stepped up the stakes with the desperate storefront gospel of “Way Down in the Hole.” Then guitarist J.C. Clark witnessed Dana Marks’s electrocuted take on “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six.”

Host Madeleine Pabis segued the acts with bone-dry spoken word sequences from Big Time and Frank’s Wild Years. Sweeter notes were heard when Leah Wilks explored “The Heart of Saturday Night” and Liam O’Neill’s reserved character placed a late-night call in “Martha.”

In the starkest moment of the night, Trevor Johnson and saxophonist Stephen Cowles gave a Black Lives Matter frame to “Small Change (Got Rained on with His Own .38),” Waits’s 1976 narrative about an adolescent’s sudden violent death. The gravitas was palpable when Johnson darkly said, “His headstone’s a gumball machine … and someone’s hosing down the sidewalk, and he’s only in his teens.”

Keyboardist Tim Smith led the entire cast and crowd in the evening’s closer, “Last Leaf,” an anthem to the kind of raw tenacity that has brought the region’s edgiest theater company this far.