Performance Review: Cristina Deptula on the Tom Sway Orchestra’s performance at the StageWerx Theatre

Who knew that at thirty years old, I’d still get excited over songs about trolls, rocks, and Rapunzel? I did last night at StageWerx Theatre, now tucked away among the curio shops, ethnic markets and avant-garde galleries of the Mission District.

The show was part of the Underground Sound series, taking place every second Sunday evening at StageWerx and designed to showcase new music. The intimate, freshly renovated venue allows audiences to hear the lyrics, and is sparsely decorated in black and white to draw attention onstage.

The first opening act, guitarist and singer Bryan Hill, serenaded us with a few tightly crafted, thoughtful pieces, including a bluegrass blessing his grandmother used to sing to him as a child. Then, to perk us up before Jhene Canody took the stage, he played a livelier tune about a man and his pet dog.

Canody mixed some poignant, dreamy pieces, laments for love gone wrong and right, with a few peppy, humorous fantasy ballads. One related the tale of a dream wedding to Jack the Ripper officiated by her fifth grade teacher, and another gently described the awkwardness of feeling so much more privileged than others for no good reason.

After an intermission, singer and songwriter Tom Sway took the stage alone for his first three pieces. Although his songs were quite fast and I couldn’t make out every word, he caught my attention with his energy and facial expressions. Sway knows how to engage an audience, entertaining with his persona in a way only a live show can capture.

While often playful, Sway’s lyrics never became corny or ridiculous because of his subtle observations about life and human nature. His first piece, an upbeat fantasy about a lake with tiny rocks and hermits fishing where there are no fish, but he worked in mentions here and there about the tragicomedy of life. Not enough to sound self-consciously ‘deep’, but just to make audiences take a step back and reflect.

Another song, my personal favorite, tells of a man fascinated by a female dancer/mermaid/mythical creature who steals and then returns his car. He panics, but when she comes back, he ends up going with the flow and enjoying being with her. Although clearly fanciful, the piece made me think of how many times in life I feel sidetracked or frustrated, then decide to just be okay and live in the moment.

Later on, along with emcee Bruce Pachtman on drums and Phil Casey on piano, he performed a set of longer, perky pieces. These included a jazz-esque love song, a long storytelling session about searching for treasure in the desert, and a remake of the Rapunzel tale, which got us tapping our feet and relating to the characters’ loneliness.

Sway refers to his musical group as an ‘orchestra,’ from which he decided to eliminate brass, strings and woodwinds for playful reasons. The orchestra provided interesting and complex accompaniment, complementing and sometimes mellowing out Sway’s onstage personality. All three performers came together nicely for the last piece, a group signature tune about a deserted Midwestern high school football stadium that left me clapping in rhythm and remembering my teen years.

Tom Sway’s a native to San Francisco and writes his own songs. His music’s very accessible, fun to listen to, and a good alternative to angsty or inane tunes you might find elsewhere. It’s worth catching the next time you’re in town, live if possible!

Cristina Deptula is a writer from San Leandro, California. She can be reached at