On Thursday night the Old Vic reverberated to the sound of a man pogoing enthusiastically against a glass ceiling. Rufus Wainwright, whose latest album, “Release the Stars“, debuted last week in the UK album charts behind only Linkin Park, has comprehensively conquered his natural demographic of romantics seduced by the Broadway panache of his debonair vocals and cognoscenti who recognise a prodigiously gifted singer-songwriter when they hear one. Much as he is suitably grateful for that and generous with his time towards his legion of devoted fans, he increasingly admits to a craving for wider recognition. Not so much, though, that he plans an attack on the world’s arenas. He finds himself, instead, where instinct naturally leads him, in a six-night residence at a London theatre he describes on stage as “possibly the best in the world”, showcasing a record that features two numbers from an abandoned musical drama and revelling in the generous acoustic.
His show is literally and metaphorically a game of two halves. Wrongfooting some seasoned gig-goers by actually starting at the time it says on the ticket, he signals that in this space he is bowing to the conventions of the stage in preference to those of rock and roll. He opens the show like a latter-day Sinatra, exhorting unseen studio moguls, in the lyrics of the album’s title track, to give free rein to the likes of Olivier and Burton whose black and white portraits permeate the Old Vic’s stairwells. Mood established, he goes on to deliver the majority of “Release the Stars” in a songs-from-the-shows format, each number punctuated by fervent but reverent clapping and a pause for musicianly re-grouping while the star, with echoes of thespian stand-up Eddie Izzard, engages the audience with a few well-received, self-deprecating anecdotes. This first hour draws to a natural conclusion as West End stalwart Sian Phillips reprises her recorded performance of the dramatic closing lines to “Between My Legs” over Rufus and his seven-strong backing band, costumed as Studio 54 renegades, gleefully cajoling Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber to verify that you can’t copyright musical scales.
Twenty minutes later, the band is back and suddenly we’re not in Kansas any more, Toto. It’s almost as if the clock ticking round to the time-honoured 9pm triggers the arrival of Wainwright’s modern pop persona. The diffidence of the first act is gone and Wainwright strides assertively back into view, resplendent in his newly bespoke lederhosen, to give a seamless tour de force of his chosen musical genres, ranging from a successfully courageous reimagining of the new album’s multi-layered opener, “Do I Disappoint You?“, that has his whole retinue pulling out every stop, right down to a mesmerising, mic-less rendition of Irish folk standard, “Macushlah” which draws the first real reflex roar from the auditorium. Switching now with disarming grace between his own crowd-pleasing creations and dusted-off gems of bygone eras, this minstrel for the new Millennium convinces us that we are witnessing both kinds of music here, ladies and gentleman: Rufus AND Wainwright.
As he bounces off followed one at a time by his Stars in Stripes, who seem all to sing and play half-a-dozen instruments apiece, sometimes simultaneously, prolonged and urgent applause draws him back for spell-binding piano and vocal encores before a finale which, without giving too much away, should please those who enjoyed Wainwright’s appearances at the Palladium earlier this year while giving the ghosts of Morecambe and Wise something to smile about. And so the house, loaned briefly overnight to its starry apparitions, belongs once again to Rufus Wainwright, though our award for best supporting artiste goes to Gerry Leonard on Electric Guitar That Of Necessity Conjures A Wide Range Of Unexpected Sounds.
By the way, Rufus, we think we can see a skylight in that tricky ceiling of yours. Put out the by turns cheeky, upbeat, catchy and soaring “Between My Legs” as a single and see if that doesn’t shift it.
Photo via zendave’s Flickr stream.