From Lenox to Berlin, via Humphries


LENOX — "Barry Humphries' Weimar Cabaret," which blew into Tanglewood on Sunday night, was labeled in correct proportion. It was half Barry Humphries and half Weimar cabaret.

If you were a Humphries fan, the music was probably incidental. If you were curious about Berlin cabaret music of the Weimar era (1919-33), you might have wanted to say to the voluble "conférencier": Some quiet, please.

Or something stronger.

Stronger stuff was promised by the parental guidance warning – no doubt, a Tanglewood first – attached to the program. Those Australians must have tender sensibilities. Kids can, and probably do, see worse any day on television and the Internet and in movies.

The program was brought to us by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, with Richard Tognetti conducting, and frequently soloing, from the concertmaster's position. Ozawa Hall was customized for the occasion with strolling musicians in gangster-like black suits and hats, red and blue lighting effects, and background noises and music.

And, of course, there was Meow Meow, she of the black-sequined corsets and outrageous hair, slinking, vamping and dirty-dancing as she channeled Marlene Dietrich, Ute Lemper and a bit of Lotte Lenya.

Since the Broadway and movie "Cabaret" had gone for an authentic re-creation, Humphries fashioned his version around himself and his discovery of the music, beginning in a second-hand bookstore in Melbourne. As he introduced individual pieces, digressions ranged from a riff on Donald Trump's comb-over (big applause) to people he knew and places he had been.

Musically, there was a lot of interest in the doings, and well-honed performances to bring the once (and sometimes still) forgotten material to life. Nearly all of it was labeled "degenerate" by the Nazis; the composers, banned, either fled into exile or met their fate in the camps. Jazz figured prominently in the mix. Decadence, real or pretend, was the watchword.

Some of the music was everyday stuff, such as the Brecht-Weill "Pirate Jenny" and "Surabaya Johnny," which Meow Meow nearly turned into caricature with her overwrought shouting and pouting. Here and elsewhere, heavy miking rendered the mixed German and English texts mostly indecipherable.

Among the lesser-known items, two orchestral pieces by Ernst Krenek — an excerpt from his opera "Johnny Spielt auf" and a potpourri — suggested that this composer might be due for a revival. Bits by Mischa Spoliansky glinted with a fine satirical edge.

The smutty stuff, aha, consisted of a sequence of four numbers ranging through lesbianism (onstage smooching!) and sado masochism and winding up in the "Sonata Erotica" by Erwin Schulhoff. This turned out to be a scroll of pages that Meow Meow unfurled across the stage to the shrieks and groans of a pretend orgasm, followed by the proper ablutions.

Taking note of a plaque honoring Maurice Abravanel onstage, Humphries mispronounced the name of the Weill collaborator and longtime Tanglewood faculty member. On the other hand, some of his gags struck a timely note. A few empty seats in the supposedly sold-out house, for example, weren't empty at all, but tombstones for long-time subscribers who had died.

A laugh is a laugh. Weimar is history, and today is today.


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