Brian Jacobson

Pink Martini brings elegance and mystery to the Pabst Theater

By - Mar 19th, 2008 02:52 pm

Sometimes you need a little reminder that you are living in a city capable of sophistication and intrigue. Inside the intimate yet lavishly gilded atmosphere of the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, right down the street from bawdy St. Patrick’s Day revelers on Water Street and Bruce Springsteen rocking the Bradley Center, an elegant woman in a black designer dress saunters on stage. Her necklace and earrings twinkle in the spotlight while her lowered face reveals dark eyeshadow with sparkles mixed in.


Her face rises and dark red lips part. The 11-piece band crescendos and pauses. Out of singer China Forbes comes fluent musical Portuguese. In another number it is Spanish. Then English. Then French. Later Italian appears and even Arabic for a little Egyptian number that translates to “Tomorrow and the Day After.”

It’s clear within the first five numbers (in two hours this “little orchestra” will perform 22 songs with no intermission) that Pink Martini falls within the depth-defying genre known as ‘world lounge’ music. What began as a four-piece performing at political events, founded by artistic director and pianist Thomas Lauderdale, was later expanded with fellow Harvard alum Forbes into a jazz orchestra. Pink Martini recalls the golden age of cabaret showstoppers in samba, salsa, cha-cha and any other number of arrangements influenced by outposts of sound from around the world.

The crowd at the venerable music hall is decidedly older for the most part, but the enthusiasm of the crowd – frequently so loud that they interrupt Lauderdale and Forbes’ witty banter – pleasantly startle the band. After ten years recording albums and performing around the world, the pack of mostly under-40 musicians onstage still seemed flummoxed by their avid fans.

Some songs illicit cheers at the first notes when they are recognized as revered classics, once sung by the likes of Henri Salvador and Eartha Kitt. Other compositions of original nature such as Pink Martini’s current hit “Hey Eugene” – a song Forbes wrote almost action-for-action about a one-night encounter with an enthusiastic guy who never called her back – garner even more praise from the audience.

While the cheers and frequent standing ovations are justly deserved this evening, it sometimes feels like the crowd is so hungry for culture and music not heard outside the realm of occasional NPR programs that they threaten to consume the orchestra whole.

When Forbes cryptically dedicates final number “Brazil” to a couple that seems to follow the band on tour dates, it’s obvious that the older-but-energetic woman who runs down the aisle and starts a conga line is the one described by the singer. It’s an odd sensation, watching older people jump out of their seats and start dancing with abandon – but that’s just the power of Pink Martini’s living music, and it must be seen, heard and felt to understand. VS

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