The promotional info for Changes: A Theatrical Tribute to the Music of David Bowie issued a warning: “This is not a Tribute Show – it’s a personal, raw account of storytelling through contemporary and physical theatre.”
I wasn’t clear on what the story was in many of the episodic offerings that accompanied the performances of Bowie’s songs. While there was plenty of physical theatre, a little dialogue might have given me something more solid to hang on to. Changes was co-created by Jeff Wortman, singer of the band Robot Child, and Kendall-Jane Rundle of Bare Naked Theatre (recently of 4:48 Psychosis).
The opening showed promise. Wortman dressed Rundle in a frilled shirt and red jacket, and coached her in how to throw some of Bowie’s shapes. With her bone structure, late-Bowie-era haircut, and under the dappled lighting, we could take Rundle for The Thin White Duke. This likeness was squandered as all too often Rundle had little to do, either being off stage, lying prone, or lingering in the shadows whilst Wortman did his front-man thing, singing many songs upstage and solo.
As we moved through the show’s two acts, it was disheartening to see so little progression of ideas or characters. In various scenes Wortman was the charismatic front man receiving (mostly female) attention from the other performers: Jacqui Essing, Charlotte Fox, Candice Lillian, Isabelle Mulrooney, Benjamin Samuel and Melanie Stevens. Although in the second act he morphed slightly to have a bracket as a charismatic cult leader, and now the women were ecstatic recipients of the blessings he offered.
When Rundle and Wortman did have scenes together, they often didn’t seem to show much respect to Bowie’s legend and uncompromising personality. Wortman dragged a supine Rundle around the stage, or she would look up at him as would a dutiful and admiring partner. The cues were accumulating to encourage us to judge this front-man character as a posturing egomaniac with not much else to his personality.
The other performers had the odd instructive moment, such as when they danced spiritedly awaiting the arrival of the Starman, and a scene of bustle recalling fast-paced life in a crowded metropolis in Young Americans. A lot of the time though, the movement didn’t illustrate the songs anything like what a good film clip would.
One lesson from Bowie’s output is that he knew how to choose collaborators and tap into their strengths, such as when he got producer Nile Rodgers for his deliberately commercial Let’s Dance record. Currently Changes seems to lack this kind of catalyst; Rundle has a thin voice and Wortman seems mired in a particular type of character. We seem to be missing the crucial force that will give Changes more depth or the variety that Bowie brought to his lifetime of performing.
Although the promotional material also promised Waleed Aly on guitar, those seeking this novelty may wish to check in advance. At this review performance, his understudy capably handled duties in his absence. Wortman mostly gave strong performances of the songs, although his diction was more James Reyne than Ziggy Stardust at times.
Certainly Robot Child were on top of the tunes, with guitar stabs, cosmic synth lines and cultivated distortions giving some nasty rock edginess to the first half in particular. Unfortunately for Changes and myself, I suspect that I would have gotten more out of this show if I was able to give them my undivided attention.
Sometimes we can love something so thoroughly that we can struggle to express its importance to those less devoted. Perhaps we should give this iteration of Changes: A Theatrical Tribute to the Music of David Bowie the benefit of that interpretation, and hope that – like early Bowie – it has some development still to come.
Changes: A Theatrical Tribute to the Music of David Bowie
Gasworks Arts Park, 21 Graham Street, Albert Park
Performance: Saturday 30 July 2016 – 1.00pm
Season continues to 6 August 2016
Image: Changes: A Theatrical Tribute to the Music of David Bowie (supplied)
Review: Jason Whyte