Sometimes, something remarkable can grow from the most unexpected juxtapositions. At 28, Marissa Mulder has a voice like a spring morning and a face to match. Her singing frequently puts experienced cabaret-goers in mind of Blossom Dearie's little-girl innocence, and therefore the least likely material she could tackle would be the gin-soaked, hard-luck, grimy inner-city stories of Tom Waits. No, she doesn't take the easy step of addressing the songwriter's lighter material, nor does she try to brighten up any of Mr. Waits's infamously dark, rumpled anthems. Instead, she takes his darkest and most profound songs and looks them straight in the eye. Complementing Ms. Mulder's starkly honest interpretations is pianist Jon Weber, who helps her extract the majestically dysfunctional beauty of texts like "Broken Bicycles" without merely prettying them up.
Ms. Mulder and Mr. Weber have also released an album of this show, taped during its premiere week this past March at the Metropolitan Room, and also titled "Tom... In His Own Words." But, as with "Every Grain of Sand," Barb Jungr's breakthrough album of Bob Dylan songs from 2002, one hopes that this album is just the beginning, rather than the culmination, of the singer's involvement with the songwriter.
Ms. Mulder's song list includes a few of Mr. Waits's best-known songs ("Ol '55," "(Looking for) the Heart of Saturday Night," "Jersey Girl"), as well as some idiosyncratic choices, like "Alice," and "Broken Bicycles," the latter including an unexpected allusion to Al Jolson's hit, "The Anniversary Song." To her credit, Ms. Mulder has also made a point to recite a sampling of the famous Waits monologues, especially from his 1975 live album "Nighthawks at the Diner," an especially astute move since Mr. Waits's post-beat-poet style involves the spoken word almost as much as that which is sung. Indeed, many listeners might not even be willing to concede that the deep-throated growls usually emitting from Mr. Waits's throat should be described as singing. (There's an entire subset of YouTube videos wherein Mr. Waits's vocals are synched to images of the Cookie Monster, but obviously Mr. Waits, who has described his scabrous voice as "Louis Armstrong meets Ethel Merman in hell," is obviously in on the joke.)
Which brings us to what Ms. Mulder has left out of her program, and that's Mr. Waits's long-running series of comic songs, like "Step Right Up," his carnival barker's answer to "Trouble" ("In River City," that is), or "The Piano Has Been Drinking." These songs, which reveal a sledge-hammer sense of humor reminiscent of Thelonious Monk, are essential entries in the Waits oeuvre. Yet his comedy is largely built on mocking his own persona, and, obviously, no one else can do a self-parody of Tom Waits. Yet one hopes that Ms. Mulder and Mr. Weber will continue exploring Mr. Waits's music, and that they might be able to find their way into his humor like noone has been able to do before.
Ms. Mulder is conjuring a bleak mood, but it's one in which every little scrap of happiness is to be appreciated, and nothing is taken for granted. She gradually builds to "(Looking for) the Heart of Saturday Night," which she concludes with a brief reprise of "Ol' 55." The night that Mr. Waits (and now Ms. Mulder) describes so vividly may have been a bust, ending with him driving off dejectedly as the sun comes up, but in a funny way it shows that hope is still lingering around, refusing to call it a night. Indeed, disappointment is only possible when there's at least a shadow of hope present.
Ms. Mulder has given us a virtual definition of what cabaret is supposed to be about, to project and amplify one's own soul through the lens of songs written by someone else. Like Mr. Waits, she may not have actually found what she was looking for on Saturday night, but surely she's gotten to the heart of something.
By Will Friedwald - The Wall Street Journal