The ambient noise of an urban streetscape occasionally interrupted by the screaming steel on steel of a passing tram plays in the background. First one, then two, then several people carrying instruments filter into the hall and onto the stage. Despite the close, clammy air of a typical August evening, these men and women look crisp, cool and composed in their dark suit coats, pants and snap-brim fedoras.

Meow Meow and Barry Humphries © Hilary Scott
Meow Meow and Barry Humphries
© Hilary Scott
A strolling violinist strikes up Mack the Knife then passes the melody off to the accordionist. From time to time, other instruments chime in with brief variations or a filigree run of notes. Gradually the orchestra gathers and sits. Meow Meow in a black and silver flapper dress, her Clara Bow bob all askew as if coifed with a balloon, wanders onstage, greets some musicians, then takes a seat, out of sight. A spotlight catches an impossibly barrel-chested, beaming man in a frog-fastened, black velvet dinner jacket as he comes downstage and announces that he is appearing tonight, “heavily disguised as myself”. So begins Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret – a witty, urbane valentine to the musical culture of Germany in the 1920s and 30s, from the opera house to the concert hall to Berlin’s revues and cabarets.

As a Melbourne schoolboy haunting used bookstores, Humphries came across a stack of sheet music from the 20s, published by the renowned Universal Music Company of Vienna. The composers were new to him. He bought the lot and so began a lifelong fascination with the Weimar period. Collaborating with Richard Tognetti and the outstanding Australian Chamber Orchestra, cabaret chanteuse and performance artist Meow Meow, and director Rodney Fisher, Humphries finally realized a long incubating project and premiered Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret in 2013, touring throughout Australia. Tanglewood and Seiji Ozawa Hall constituted the final and only American stop of a short tour including London and Edinburgh.

Meow Meow and Barry Humphries © Hilary Scott
Meow Meow and Barry Humphries
© Hilary Scott
The program opened with Hindemith’s Kammermusik no. 1 and an orchestral excerpt from Jonny spielt auf, the first of many pieces orchestrated for the reduced forces of the ACO by Ian Grandage. Jaroslav Ježek’s wildly syncopated Bugatti Step brought Meow Meow front and center for an energetic Charleston with Humphries gamely seconding her moves, an effort which left the 82-year-old breathless and calling for “a cardiologist… or a choreographer!” Not winded in the least, Meow Meow breezed through Misha Spoliansky’s It’s a swindle introduced by Humphries with a sly nod in Donald Trump’s direction the audience saw coming a mile away.

Now in a form-fitting black strapless gown slit to the thigh in the front, tasseled at the bust, and glittering with rhinestones, Meow Meow returned to wrap the hall in Weill’s defiant Pirate Jenny and the searing, roller coaster emotions of Surabaya Johnny. A protean performer and vocalist, she managed with ease the drama of Weill, the teasing innuendo of her duet with Humphries in Paul Abraham’s laughing song Mousie, and the coy gender bending of Spoliansky’s “When the best girlfriend” introduced in 1928 by Margo Lion and Marlene Dietrich. Her voice moved smoothly from singing to declamation and back in classic Berlin cabaret style. But she stopped the show with Erwin Schulhoff’s Dadaist, 1919 Sonata Erotica, labeled “For gentlemen only” and scored for “Solo Muttertrompete” (slang for oviduct and an arch way of saying vagina without saying vagina). A series of monosyllabic German adverbs and pronouns spoken at an ever-quickening pace, the piece reaches a sustained orgasmic frenzy. Meow Meow’s rendition might still be registering on the Richter scale if, as can happen in such situations, a bathroom break, artfully and discretely simulated onstage, hadn’t intervened.

Barry Humphries and Meow Meow © Hilary Scott
Barry Humphries and Meow Meow
© Hilary Scott

Other highlights – Wilhelm Grosz’s Jazzband showcasing the skills of pianist Ben Dawson and violinist Richard Tognetti; Ernst Toch’s Geographical Fugue, consisting of place names spoken in stringent fugal counterpoint by the ACO; Max Brand’s remarkable Black Bottom-Jazz from the intriguing 1928 opera, Maschinist Hopkins featuring Tognetti on the Stroh violin, and Friedrich Holländer’s If I could wish for something hauntingly sung by ACO violinist Satu Vänskä, who could easily quit her day job based on this and duetting in When the best girlfriend.

Humphries noted what first attracted him to Weimar culture: the sense of “dancing on the rim of a volcano” it conveyed. If all that preceded represented that dance, the choice of Weill’s duet The Benares Song as encore expressed the desolation, both emotional and physical, which loomed once the dancing stopped.

Barry Humphries’ alter ego Dame Edna might share his sentiment that, "There is no more terrible fate for a comedian than to be taken seriously.” In this case, however, it served to briefly bring a vanished era to life and as an inspiration to look and listen further. Now will someone please revive Maschinist Hopkins?!?

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