The girl I wanted to take to Warm Beer Cold Women, the Guthrie musical “celebrating the music of Tom Waits,” forgot she made the date, and the girl I ended up going with has a Mexican boyfriend.
How Tom Waits is that?
But that’s nothing compared to Robert O. Berdahl’s bum trip—the writer, director, and star of Warm Beer snapped his Achilles messing around with a prop in his garage three weeks ago, but went on with the show anyway. Dude sang and danced on crutches, and there was an insert in the program hoping to excuse his last-minute surgery, a note promising “we are doing our best to embrace this beautiful malady and incorporate it into the show.”
Warm Beer is definitely game: Berdahl and two other actors, Katy Hays and Dennis Curley, backed by a six-piece band, run through thirty-three Tom Waits tunes during the course of two hours. There’s not much of a plot tying everything together; it’s more like each song is performed as a self-contained skit, with the three actors portraying different characters—an ice-cream man sings “The Ice Cream Man,” a hooker from Minneapolis sings, “Xmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” a couple makes “Pick Up After You” a dysfunctional duet. If anything, the songs are set along the timeline of Tom Waits’ career—intermittently throughout the show, taped snippets of a Rolling Stone-type interview with Berdahl-as-Waits plays between songs. He answers the interviewer’s questions with stuff like, “I want my gravestone to read, ‘I Told You I Was Sick.’”
Warm Beer is entertaining enough to be a hit, especially in the smaller top-floor Dowling Studio. Hell, I’ll even give it its poster-ready pull quote: “Triple Espresso sings Tom Waits!” Look, I’m trying not to be a dink about this. If you’re a Tom Waits fan, I’m not going to tell you not to go, but if you’re really a Tom Waits fan, then here’s the deal: just because Waits’ music is campy, theatrical, operatic even (he’s an actor too, after all) doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to act it out. On his records, even concept records like Frank’s Wild Years, Waits cuts through the trappings of vaudeville schmaltz—trappings that he put there in the first place—because he’s too cool to give in to what he thinks to be “musical theater.” (Ironically, or maybe just defensively, during one of the interview snippets Berdahl-as-Waits says, “I hate musical theater.”) Waits is both more and less pretentious to settle for that; he’s not stuck on authenticity by any means, but he instinctively knows how to save camp from growing into corn. In Warm Beer, the actors sing their hearts out, gesturing to the back row, but I just don’t think “Time” (off 1985’s Rain Dogs) is right for the Broadway treatment. I mean, it’s easy to imagine what Zack from Down by Law would say.
For example, the first series of songs takes place in the porkpie hat, down-and-out world Waits created in the seventies. And to see a guy in a stage prop porkpie belt out “Broken Bicycles” like it’s “Tom Waits Week” on American Idol—well, it just felt wrong. That’s not to say Warm Beer doesn’t have a few highlights. Katy Hays’ brass and toughness as a singer belie her perfect cheekbones, and she works it like Gena Rowlands in a Cassavettes movie, totally in character whether playing the tough broad in the dingy housecoat or the hussy in the shabby leopard-print coat. Her cover of “Xmas Card,” where she dreams about owning a used car lot so she can drive a different car every day, is devastating in its deluded hope. And Berdahl and Curley have their moments too, especially as Warm Beer gets past the seventies-period Waits and gets into his weirder eighties stuff. Berdahl’s crazed take on “Rain Dogs” was outrageous—he follows an accordion player to the stage wearing a full-length leather duster, a leather Amelia Earheart-style flight cap and aviator goggles, twirling a blown-out umbrella. And I liked Curley’s version of “Frank’s Wild Years,” where he imitates Waits’ whiskey-shot busted growl, singing into a microphone attached to the steering wheel of a rusted out ’55 Caddy, while Berdahl and Hays sweat out the chorus in a gypsy fever.
But ultimately, I guess I’m going to go Tom Waits-snob on this one. What do you expect? The girl I wanted to take forgot she made the date, and I ended up going with a girl who has a Mexican boyfriend. And it’s raining hammers. And it’s raining naiiiils. And it’s time, time, tiiiiime.