Visual Arts > Performance
The exceedingly entertaining debut of a traveling artist, with jazz and illustrations
At the Josephine Theater on August 28, for one final night, you can find a young man who has something interesting to say, sing, and play — and he has more than enough talent to make it worth your time to engage with his musical artistry. His name is Thomas Dieter, but for his art, he goes by Varza. Make that Varza! The Romanian Adventure, or the Totally Awesome and Silly Outward Expression of (Almost) Everything That Happened to Him While Living in the Former Soviet Bloc. It’s a wordy title, even without the redundancy of “outward expression,” but it conveys the tenor of Dieter’s production: a musical odyssey through the two years he spent teaching English in Romania while serving in the Peace Corps.
Dieter takes the stage looking like a hipster Hunter S. Thompson and tears into a swinging jazz piano number that instantly shows a spotlight-worthy level of skill. The music gives way to a silly but compelling retelling of Varza’s story, beginning with the elements of Dieter’s childhood that he considers germane to his journey. The narration is accompanied by a slide show composed of child-like illustrations that transform into two-dimensional animation. The combined effect of his lilting melodies and fanciful imagery is somewhere between Michel Gondry and Sesame Street, and I mean that as a compliment. Rather than a linear account of “almost” (or anywhere near) everything that happened during Dieter’s travels, these are sonorous snapshots — moments remembered for their emotional resonance and painted with music. The most alluring is a piece that Dieter describes as the sound of being inside a cappuccino machine, which is meant to express the time he spent in coffee shops, reflecting on life and love. What begins as an amusing piece of aural impressionism becomes a lush, romantic score for youthful yearning.
All the compositions are original, written by Dieter while he was in Romania, but several are built on common folk-chord progressions, which give the melodies a familiar sound. Two of the most enchanting pieces, written and performed in Romanian, are based on poems by Romanian National Poet Mihai Eminescu. With Dieter’s jazzier compositions, the rhythms and pacing are a bit repetitive, and the lyrics are often difficult to hear over his powerful piano playing. I was happy enough, however, to take in the intriguing melodies — especially those that were layered with Dieter’s accompaniment, Tommy Miller on saxophone and Andrea Miller on keyboard.
Despite the repetition, Dieter’s command of rhythm is tremendously impressive, and it wasn’t just on display during the songs. He leaves the piano several times to tell some of his story more directly, and his musician’s sense of timing is put to great comedic and dramatic effect. He speaks with endearing earnestness of the people and places that made an impression on him, and it’s hard not to be taken in and along. Tommy Miller describes him as “the Robin Williams of words.” I’ve always thought of Robin Williams as the Robin Williams of words, but Dieter displays the same talent for conveying both humor and pathos in a unique, compelling voice. One of his lyrical lines that came through loud and clear was this: “Don’t be shy, you’ve got bills to pay.” Not that he needs to hear it from me, but I’ll tell him anyway: Thomas, don’t be shy; you’ve got something to say.