Spielpalast Cabaret occupies a unique place in Vermont's arts firmament. No other entertainment entity can boast of a similar slate of influences — Weimar-era cabaret, vaudeville and "legitimate" theater — or of a sensibility that so spiritedly embraces equal parts professionalism and sauciness.
Spielpalast has attained "institution" status in Burlington: This year's production is the troupe's 13th. And, judging by those in attendance at the first of its seven 2014 performances, the audience is likely to contain at least as many groupies as newcomers.
Spielpalast's shows are perhaps best known for the witty banter of Phinneus Sonin as Maxwell, the master of ceremonies, and for their generous displays of both male and female pulchritude (and flesh). But the music of the Spielpalast Cabaret Band holds the show together. Playful and professional, historically accurate and refreshingly modern, the band is the revue's secret weapon.
Gabriel Shapiro, 26, is the show's musical director, a position he's held for four years. He's also a coproducer, along with Sonin and Spielpalast cofounder/dancer/singer Lois Trombley. In character as Dr. Richard "Dick" Erkenheimen, Shapiro plays saxophone and leads the six-piece band. He arranged most of the music for the show's many numbers and vignettes, and contributed 10 originals. For all the exuberance expressed onstage, Shapiro may well be the busiest member of the troupe.
One of his chief challenges: directing the rest of the band while he plays sax. "I'm often conducting with my instrument while I'm playing," he says.
Shapiro draws on a remarkable variety of musical styles for his compositions and arrangements. Though the touchstone is the music of the Berlin cabarets of the 1920s and '30s, he incorporates numerous other influences in his lively, engaging score. The first act alone features songs that derive in part from traditional Russian music, American gutbucket blues and Tchaikovsky. The second act's accompaniment borrows from the work of musical humorist Tom Lehrer. Here and there during the show, you'll even hear the drummer playing a breakbeat.
That diversity itself is historically accurate, as Weimar cabaret shows were known for their piecemeal appropriation of both "high" and "low" artistic forms. Shapiro finds the artistic-historical moment represented by cabaret culture immensely appealing. "It's still on the early end of jazz, so it's a very exciting time period," he says. "It has a little bit of a darker sound."
He adds, "Even though we do keep it as 'period' as we can, there are still hip-hop influences creeping in, and later jazz influences creeping in, because that's what other cast members are interested in, and it draws the audience's attention." A friend of Shapiro's dubbed Spielpalast's artistic approach "musical historical fiction" — that is, playing historically accurate instruments in a somewhat anachronistic style. That gesture is central to Spielpalast's aesthetic.
But historical authenticity can come with a price, Shapiro acknowledges. The acoustics in Burlington City Hall Contois Auditorium are not well suited to the joyful noises of this troupe's actors and musicians. "The room is designed for town meetings," he notes. "And there are arches all along the ceiling — I think they're actually designed for hearing whispers and keeping them out of the center of the room."
If this arrangement is sonically appropriate for hushed political chicanery, it's a liability for a show like Spielpalast's, in which the music competes for attention with performers speaking and singing. The lyrical contents of several numbers were rendered unintelligible by the room's acoustics.
"Part of us trying to be 'period' is not using handheld microphones," Shapiro says. "And we use no electric instruments: We are trying to keep it as 20s as we can." (That said, Nate Venet's piano is electric.)
Even though it's largely unamplified, the band does sometimes overpower vocal performances. Perhaps it's time to sacrifice just a tad of historical authenticity in order to provide theatergoers with a more complete experience.
Vaudeville's modular structure does not lend it to cohesive narrative; indeed, that's its chief distinction from "proper" theater. In Spielpalast's current show, a few narrative elements recur in multiple numbers, but not in a particularly satisfying way: Either an experiment with a fuller storyline or a wholly narrativeless "revue" format would be welcome. That the acoustics in the hall are so poor exacerbates the narrative's spotty nature, as many plot elements were either inaudible or incomprehensible.
At Spielpalast, though, the music itself fulfills a narrative function. Shapiro's lively arrangements for sax, trumpet, piano, accordion, mandolin, banjo, drums, bass and tuba — half the musicians frequently swap out instruments — give structure to the proceedings. They draw on klezmer music, torch songs and flapper-era jazz as suits the moment.
The first-act blues number, a raunchy performance by Trombley of George Brooks' and Fletcher Henderson's "Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair," was a slinky, gruff crowd-pleaser. The second-act dance "Fromage Express" was especially buoyant, and not just because of all the tassels. In both of those highlights, the music carried the day.
The hodgepodge of influences on the current show and on Spielpalast in general tends to be an asset, thanks to the musical arrangements and performances. But it could be a liability in less capable hands. Shapiro seems to grasp that cabaret's magpie approach is essential to its appeal.
"[Cabaret is] sort of this meeting point," he explains. "Art nouveau before it, art deco right after it, with expressionism right in the middle. There are these elements of these very classical art forms ... and the weirder, the expressionist, the dark. There's a yearning for newness and for understanding the mechanical world, and the show reflects that," he adds. "There are very beautiful, symmetrical, consonant moments, and there are these very dark and chaotic moments."
Like all successful variety shows, Spielpalast's current production is genuinely varied — particularly in its vivid, enchanting music. m