In an era of rampant hypocrisy, the disaffected and marginalized often take refuge in satire, sex and song. Think Germany's fragile Weimar Republic circa 1930, or another endangered democracy a little closer to here and now. At Vermont's revue Spielpalast Cabaret, entertainment always trumps politics. But the master of ceremonies wears fascist garb while issuing his Willkommen to the audience in "South Berlin-ton, the city of Queens," and socially relevant undercurrents swirl beneath the risqué dancing, nonsensical skits and generalized merrymaking.
The Burlington-based Spielpalast, now in its fifth year, premiered a new show at Higher Ground last weekend and is touring the state this month. Its name translates to palace of play or games, and the evening is a mad sampler of song-and-dance numbers and sketches. The cast -- two dozen "dancing ladies" and a handful of male accomplices -- cavort energetically for nearly three hours, accompanied by the Spielpalast Band's swinging, jazzy mix of mostly original music.
Spielpalast is inspired by the cabaret scene that flourished in Berlin during the 1920s and early '30s. An intoxicating mix of forces rushed to fill the moral vacuum left by the German empire's post-World War I collapse. Avant-garde art movements such as Dadaism and the musical freedom of jazz collided with the end of censorship and an explosion of sexual experimentation. A woman's role was no longer defined by the Kaiser's troika of "Kirche, Kueche, Kinder" (church, kitchen, children). But liberation was limited; some German war widows resorted to prostitution to survive in an economy crushed by punitive war reparations and hyperinflation.
Europeans wanted to forget about the mechanized savagery that had just ground up a generation of men. Their desire to escape led to vigorous consumption of drugs and alcohol, and an endless appetite for all forms of entertainment. Spielpalast brings to life the German cabaret's dynamism and variety, flavored with a dash of American vaudeville.
To a diverse mix of musical numbers, the troupe adds juggling, gymnastics, magic and shadow puppetry. Comedy links the pieces together -- satiric, absurdist, raunchy or downright silly -- as do political undertones that resonate across the decades. According to the program, the Spielpalast Cabaret celebrates the resilience of the human spirit "in a time of mass propaganda, blind patriotism and military frenzy."
Maxwell, the Master of Ceremonies, both anchors and drives the show. Phinneus Sonin engages the audience effectively and presides with energy and charm. Looking like a slightly deranged Jerry Seinfeld, he morphs into various other roles while always remaining his wide-eyed, delightfully over-the-top self.
As Spielpalast's cocreator, Sonin developed some of the scenes that most pointedly combine comedy and commentary. In "Choice," based on Bertolt Brecht's "Abortion is Illegal," he plays a farcical singing doctor, telling a destitute woman she must have her unwanted baby, because "He's a hunk of cannon fodder and that's what your stomach's for." But he's soon exposed as a fraud, posing and pontificating as an MD. In "Light Box," Sonin warns the audience away from the dangerous "cathode ray gun" concealed in the ingenious Greek-Latin hybrid "Tele-Vision." But buxom shadow puppets behind the screen seduce him with a beer and the siren call: "Tired after a long day at the Spielpalast?"
Almost every performer in the troupe contributes creatively. Director Lois Trombley choreographs most of the big dance numbers, which are energetic crowd-pleasers. Her direction is sure-handed, her choreography animated and inventive. And Trombley gives the evening's outstanding vocal performance: a dusky, soulful rendition of "Ten Cents a Dance."
Spielpalast also showcases "dancing lady" Paige Carpenter's versatility. Her gymnastic skills are incorporated into the choreography most strikingly in the "Myth Garden" scene. She ascends two wide red ribbons suspended above the stage to execute a series of beautiful acrobatic contortions. Carpenter also defies gravity in a lighthearted juggling interlude with Sonin, competing to keep the most balls aloft.
Two other dance performances stand out. "Shaken Not Stirred" is a tap number that would make Fred Astaire proud. Shawn Lipenski, Zyck Baggett and Kim Jordan have frothy fun as sloppy drunks who just happen to be wearing tap shoes. At one point, they flop on their chairs to dance lying down on a sign for "Gilda's Hangover Elixir." In "Simb Thiosan," Dembe Sene leaps and prowls as the jaguar-god in a magician's trick. Sene is a former member of Senegal's National Ballet, and his jaguar is one lithe, sexy beast.
Spielpalast begins to establish a cabaret atmosphere as the audience is arriving and getting seated. The band plays; the stage features a still-life tableau vivant with four scantily clad women. Cigar girls circulate, although in these smoke-free times they sell only chocolate stogies and lipstick-stained Spielpalast postcards. Other girls playfully market more ephemeral commodities, such as "Spankings for $1.00: Given or Received."
The show's technical aspects are universally strong. Jessie Owens has put together trunkloads of inventive costumes ranging from slinky to madcap, dressing rebellious marionettes, lab-coated "Correctors" (sort of all-purpose mad scientists) and a reluctant human cannonball -- not to mention the corseted, gartered and stockinged dancing ladies. The program credits Kathleen DeSimone as the "costume genius" behind the gorgeously depicted "Myth Garden" scene, which opens the second act. Here, flesh-toned body stockings and a halcyon color palette conjure an ambiance of allegory, as two-person satyrs slink in from the audience and a phoenix rises above the stage.
The lighting is well designed and executed. Wireless body microphones make dialogue and song lyrics easy to hear. On opening night they worked flawlessly... until the lead singer's mike failed midway through the finale, an unfortunate glitch that rendered unintelligible the lusty entendres of "Barbecue Bess" -- Tinker Taylor, a.k.a. Diane Horstmeyer. Bandleader Eric Olsen marshals his talented octet skillfully, balancing the music with the onstage action.
Spielpalast Cabaret is not without flaws. At three hours, the show is a lot of entertainment for the money -- maybe a little too much. The cabaret is front-loaded; the first act is longer than the second and contains many of the best scenes. Starting a half-hour behind schedule may have exacerbated the sense that the slower parts dragged. And some of the bits could benefit from a little tightening. For example, Mephisto's intentionally hapless magic would be funnier if it was more compactly executed; the payoff does not measure up to the time invested.
The show's length can also contribute to physical discomfort for some in the audience: Higher Ground provided a few cabaret-style tables, but the main floor was densely set with the kind of folding chairs that leave lumbars blowing in the wind and chiropractors leafing through Mercedes catalogues. This may not be an issue at cushier theater venues.
Minor quibbles aside, Spielpalast Cabaret is a delight. This talented troupe has revived an old art form for one central reason: because it's so damn much fun. Compared to mind-numbing sitcoms or the heavy-handed CGIs of much modern cinema, an evening of live, five-ball juggling, smart comedy and horizontal tap dancing is far more breathtaking. And this amazing show features homegrown stars. Who knows? Your mild-mannered office mate might be one of those lingerie-wearing dancing ladies.