Miriam Waks: Songs of Romance Languages
21st of March
Czech House, North Melbourne
By Lena Nobuhara
After having been spoilt by abundance of quality music at Womadelaide and the Adelaide Fringe Festival in March (which also happens to be ‘Cabaret Month’), my expectations were sky high for this show ‘Songs of Romance Languages’ by Miriam Waks, which sold out last year at The Butterfly Club and The El Rocco Room. She’ll soon be off to Macau on a six-month singing contract and I wanted to catch her show before she left. I sit in anticipation, hoping that it’ll be icing on the cake to top off the great run I’ve had all month.
Waks appears in a striking silver gown with a red flower in her pulled back hair, Julie Wilson style. She opens the set with Y Viva Espana, and I know immediately that she is the real deal. Her soaring lush alto is creamy and smooth as honey. She’s got rhythm, is effervescent and has stage presence that gets you to sit up and take notice.
It’s a cabaret show about, well, Romance Languages - a branch of the Indo-European language family that descended from Latin. Incorporating Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Ladino, Romany and English songs, not to mention an array of musical styles like tango, jazz, fado, bossa nova and chanson all into one show is no easy feat. Crossing over genres and nations in such fashion could easily lose focus but Waks takes on the challenge and presents a well-crafted show. Her faithful treatment of the songs means the audiences get the real sense of authenticity. Inclusion of some English lyrics does help, but she conveys a lot of the meaning just by singing them from her soul.
Romance being the common thread, it’s interspersed with her amusing patter and self-deprecating tales of love. The stories involving her ex-boyfriend and a hunk of bacon (she’s Jewish) or a Portuguese waiter she spoke Spanish to, have the crowd thoroughly entertained. She also sets the scene for the songs she sings, which helps the audience to join her on the journey – she engages everyone with such honesty and openness that I can’t help but be disarmed and find her endearing.
We take a quick trip to Argentina with energetic tango, followed by sing-along to an anthem for procrastinators – Manana (Is Soon Enough for Me). Then I’m transported to the streets of Paris. Waks sings Jacques Brel and she does it well, building up the song from subtle to speedy with panache only a truly confident performer can. We continue to travel through Brazil with Chega De Saudade / No More Blues, then it’s back 500 years in Spain and she sings a traditional Ladino song resurrected by Yasmin Levy.
Her three-piece band (Joe Ruberto on piano/accordion, Michael Rochford on drums and Dan Gordon on double bass) effortlessly moves from one genre to the next, displaying amazing virtuosity. Ruberto’s accordion solo is exceptional and he sends the crowd wild.
Waks ramps up the heat in the second set in a glittering scarlet halter-neck number. She gives rousing rendition of Mas Que Nada, and turns a few notches down with the sorrowful delivery of Veinte Anos by Buena Vista Social Club.
One of the standouts for me was the jazz classic Peel Me a Grape. It’s fierce, sultry, passionate and totally absorbing. Her scatting shows the depth of her improv skills as she shimmies on the stage.
Then in a heartbeat, Waks shows fragile vulnerability when she sings a lachrymose and melancholic Portuguese Fado song O Gente da Minha Terra. It’s heartrending and she captures every emotional layer.
I swoon to her exquisite version of La Vie en Rose then gleefully clap to the exuberant Brazil. Audience members get up and dance, there are cheers and applauses – Waks has well and truly cast a spell on us. For an encore, she treats us to a mellow and lingering Grande Grande Grande/Never Never Never, leaving everyone wanting for more.
Her versatility - stagecraft and unfaltering talent for convincingly performing in multiple languages while creating the right setting and feelings for each song - is remarkable. ‘Songs of Romance Languages’ is so much more than icing on the cake I’d hoped for – it’s a whole bakery, teeming with delectable treats from around the globe.
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