Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Observations on The Tiger Lillies by Karen Lillis

Saturday, October 28th, Pittsburgh fans gave an enthusiastic welcome to the London-based cabaret trio, The Tiger Lillies, in their debut performance in the city. The show was held at the
Byham Theater downtown, reportedly Pittsburgh’s oldest standing performing arts facility. The Byham was built in 1903 and served as a vaudeville theater for a few decades, then was converted into a movie theater in the 1930s; I loved the old details of the place, the gold moldings, the cherubim reliefs holding strings of lights, the murals of nymphs against a Maxfield Parrish sky on the ceiling, and the (probably 1950s) black-and-chrome glamour bathroom. The tickets were pretty damn affordable, for downtown theater. Twenty bucks for floor seats and only ten for the balcony.
The Tiger Lillies are a macabre musical ensemble who give a riveting, impeccable, theatrical performance to their morbid, comic, erotic songs. Martyn Jacques is the creative driver as
singer/songwriter for the group, with Adrian Stout on bass (mostly) and Adrian Huge on a whacked-out drum set, complete with rubber chicken.
Jacques plays the Brecht-ian character to a T with bowler hat, white-face and sinister black eyebrows, white shirt and trousers, and a very long braid down his back. But as compelling as his movements can be, it is his voice which steals the show. Like Sinead O’Connor and Diamanda Galas, Jacques trained in opera; he most often sings in a gender-bending castrati range. But other times he croaks in a Tom Waits-gravel-voice and displays an abject irreverence towards his vocal cords. (Waits had to have surgery on his vocal cords for the damage he rendered them by singing in his “low falsetto.”)
The storyline I’ve heard is that Jacques at one point resided in Soho (London’s red light district), lived on the dole, and took opera classes on the cheap at some London community college. His writing is said to have come from observing the prostitutes and drug addicts of those Soho days, which is clearly true, except that when I hear that description, it makes him sound like a cultural anthropologist instead of another city dweller who may or may not have any number of things in common with his “subjects.”
Jacques’ voice is startling and impressive. During the evening, I found myself thinking about the combination of his writing--these stark and simple lyrics of archetypal skid-row characters--and the particular performance he gives his words. In a stanza about a “broken-backed
beggar,” his artfully screeching voice made the words “GREEED and FAME!” into two more characters, familiar as they are in cities of high capitalism (or the art world). It was the gravel voice to an extreme when he sang the words slowly, “The fire - it warms – the Matchgirl - and she - is free - to dream....,” making the matchgirl’s unspoken story seem ominous, or perhaps just lending an ephemeral moment weight enough to pass into legend. His gleefully rolling R’s added an extra level of disgust when he sang the chorus about everyone’s favorite city dwellers, “RatsRRatsRRatsRRatsRats!”
As a writer, Jacques loves blasphemy best, and offers it with gusto and gallows humor, singing about killing his mother and God in two separate songs. “Mary’s going down on the Lord” was about Mary Magdalene, and yet another ditty featured a diseased prostitute: “One More Trick Before She Dies.” I’d say at least a good third of the audience were fans of the trio, cackling in delight at the most scandalous lyrics, and immediately shouting titles when Jacques asked in his Monte-Python falsetto, “Any requests?”
Adrian Stout played a violin bow on the saw to great effect during “The Violin Plays Your Life Away,” in keeping with The Tiger Lillies push-pull aesthetics of mixing sweet and jarring, nostalgic and violent. I hadn’t thought about the saw as a musical instrument for many months, and it sent me back to images of a subway busquer in New York, a rather serious young man in his 20s. I saw him a number of times in the Bedford Avenue station and also in Union Square. I
remember him as quite tall and lanky, with a boyish energy but also deeply serene, with a strong air of self-possession. He was very quiet, I never heard him speak. He was dark skinned brown-black but since I never heard his accent I don’t know if he was American or African or
from the islands.
A delicate amount of smoke-effect (do they still use dry ice?) wafted across the stage at the Byham Theatre, high above The Tiger Lillies’ heads, and was visible in the stage lights. This recalled something I learned only recently, that downtown Pittsburgh in the
steel days was dark in the middle of the day, because of all the smoke from the mills filling the sky. Pictures I had seen and thought were fabulous city-scapes at night, turned out to have been examples of this phenomenon. It is hard for this newcomer to fathom, as Pittsburgh now is overgrown with trees and flora.
The Pittsburgh fans’ applause earned them one encore, and in return they gave The Tiger Lillies a standing ovation after the final curtain.

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