The Assembly Gardens Palais Du Variété is a big Spiegeltent to fill, and the high heeled silver spangly boots of David Bowie are big boots to fill.
This is a love letter to Bowie artiste to artiste, rather than a traditional tribute act
After a forgivable rocky start, where the dramatic intro track stops half-way through and takes a long, awkward minute to restart, Starman is both bizarre and baffling. Much like this swiftly overlooked opening, the showconstantly ignores the elephant in the room. And there’s a few.
Self-confessed Starman Sven Ratzke sweeps onto stage, singing his original song Rock ’n’ Roll Sandman. Once the song is finished, he takes a brief bow and begins rambling about the themes of Bowie’s songs, with no further introduction of himself, his own song, or even his bandmates onstage with him. We’re left guessing at whether we should view Sven as an all-guns-blazing copy of the trailblazer Mr Bowie, or as a star in his own right (it’s the latter). We’re also left guessing as to whether this is a concert or a cabaret, and whether we’re allowed to sing along or not – we’re not encouraged to do so, so we sit back and hum along when we want to scream and shout, and whoop and holler. Sven barely touches on arguably the biggest topic, and probably the reason we came to see this show ‘in memoriam’: David Bowie’s tragic and star-shattering death early this year. We all know they’re there, and we don’t talk (or sing) about these elephants, and it’s all a bit weird.
Regrettably more Alan Cumming than Aladdin Sane in image, Sven Ratzke has a stellar stage presence that is overshadowed by the monumental task at hand. The lightning bolt is not on-face, and the hair is not red, and although he does have a great voice in his own right, it’s not breathtakingly Bowie. Costumes are a little tacky and there’s far too much chat between songs, trying to string some sort of narrative from the abstract lyrics of Bowie’s songs. This is a love letter to Bowie artiste to artiste, rather than a traditional tribute act.
Behind Sven, Starman’s three-piece band are sensational, particularly Charly Zastrau on piano and synths. The spectacular venue, musicians and technical staff on this show really do save it from becoming a crude pub tribute band and there are rare poignant moments where Sven talks about the universe, the stars, and David. Covers of the title track Starman and Major Tom are highlights, both with jazzy undertones. However, many roaring choruses where the audience want to raucously sing along with Sven are rearranged to be stripped back and piano. It’s intriguing for the first song, but becomes a trend throughout. As a performance that’s billed as a “cabaret rock show”, it feels as though it would be rude to sing along, and that’s no fun.
As a carbon-copy of Bowie, Starman is unconvincing; as a fresh take on Bowie’s best works, it isn’t different enough. It falls into an uncertain territory of being neither this nor that. If you came to see Sven, you’re in for a treat as he’s a terrific performer and singer. If you’re a die-hard Bowie fan looking for some different, but not too radical, interpretations of his songs, you’re in for a nice surprise. Starman is good; it’s just not Bowie.