image by Joke Schot
image by Joke Schot

It’s been a tough year for us Bowie fans. Our hero disappeared back into the stardust from which he was born, and left us tearfully poring over the one final album he released on his birthday and two days before his deathday, looking for clues as to how we might go on sparkling in his absence. As a kind of unusual consolation for our loss, there’s another man who fell to Perth to help us in our time of grief, Sven Ratzke. He breezed through His Majesty’s Theatre for one night as STARMAN, on his way to the great Overeast.

Starman must (and does) come with the warning that it is NOT a Bowie tribute show. Ratzke does NOT do a Bowie impersonation. He wouldn’t insult us that way, and his own Ratzke persona is too big to shoehorn into some kind of charicature. Starman is a weird re-imagining of Bowie’s music, filtered through the mind of a world-traveling cabaret performer, translated using new musical idioms by Charly Zastrau and his band. It’s something to behold.

Ratzke opens the show with his own song, which is again a gentle reminder that this isn’t a Bowie tribute show. He then starts rolling out the classics, accompanied by a magical tale of time travel that takes us from England to New York, to LA and ending in Germany. Ratzke has chosen songs that illustrate this journey, and Zastrau’s new arrangements amplify the dramatic tendencies of Bowie’s compositions. For we must remember that Bowie made theatre with his music and his persona, and Ratzke recognizes and harnesses this fully.

Their percussive rendition of “Boys Keep Swinging,” Ratzke’s arms flailing, their Kurt Weill-esque redux of “Time,” their heartfelt, powerful treatment of “Heroes” are all standouts, the latter producing a sizable lump in the throat and a few shy tears in the eyes of this Bowie lover. Bowie fans should take heart that Ratzke is doing exactly what Bowie did all along his career, which is to say he gathered patches of creative fabric from other artists and pieced them on his own terms. So die-hards just might be able to take a fresh look at Bowie’s ideas with Ratzke.

Now, Ratzke’s Bowie odyssey is truly filled with oddities, but you’ll find yourself strangely fascinated by his little wonders. He’s a world-class cabaret artist and knows how to work a crowd and have them eating from his palm. He has a hundred voices where most people have one, and he’s as silly or as serious as you want him to be. He gives good strut in his platform boots and costumes that allude to the ones that Bowie made iconic. His charming Dutch turn-of-phrase melts in your ear, and his full-bodied voice travels easily along Bowie’s own considerable vocal range.

Starman isn’t a tribute show, but it is a loving tribute to one of this universe’s most amazing artists as well as a weird, wild and hilarious journey with Sven Ratzke, who will no doubt take Fringe World by storm when (hopefully) he falls back to Perth next year.