Tom Waits’s theatrical approach to songwriting, imbuing detailed characters with distinct vocal and personal traits, would seem an ideal fit for the recent spate of “jukebox musicals” that build scripts around a legendary artist’s body of work.
Yet Belly of a Drunken Piano is informed far less by this trend than by tribute bands. Stewart D’Arrietta, who co-wrote this production with John Waters (not the filmmaker but an Australian actor unknown in the States), has no interest in investigating Waits’s gallery of nocturnal ne’er-do-wells; he merely wishes to credibly render the man’s best-known tunes and explain how they’ve mirrored his own life. This isn’t so much a play as a cover band concert with expository monologues injected between the songs.
The songs are delivered with respect and care. Despite limited opportunity to rehearse together, D’Arrietta and his three backing musicians jam effortlessly yet powerfully together, both on the audacious rock numbers and the pensive ballads. “Kentucky Avenue,” with its bowed double-bass, is especially lovely, the Brecht-acular “God’s Away on Business” not far behind. Vocally, the likable D’Arrietta, a natural Waits soundalike, makes for a tough read: Any thought that he might inhabit not just the body of Tom but the minds of his characters dissipates on the satire “Step Right Up”: He approaches the audience not as a shifty salesman, but as a shifty lounge singer rapping about a shifty salesman.
With no obvious logic to the ordering of the songs and no insight to Waits’s lyrical content, Belly proves a self-indulgent vehicle for its star. It’s a marvelous run-through of a challenging and diverse catalog—but really, you can see tribute bands at B.B. King’s for 10 bucks.