Looking for something totally different to do on a Saturday night? Take a trip to the East Village to Pangea to see a cabaret show called “Lavender Songs.” Performed by Jeremy Lawrence in full drag, the show is based on a program created by Alan Lareau for the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington DC in conjunction with an exhibition on the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. “Lavender Songs” includes the work of a variety of pre-war underground German composers and lyricists, many of them Jews.
Wearing a chic little black dress and an extraordinary amount of makeup, Lawrence appears as his flaming alter ego, Tante Fritzy, a charmingly naughty relative who promises to give no advice. Between amusing patter, Fritzy goes on to sing songs such as “Can Love Really Be a Sin?” “Special Girlfriend,” and “Masculinum-Femininum.” No one would accuse Lawrence of having a beautiful voice, but he hits his notes and he knows how to perform a song. The material varies from the almost-crude and very funny double entendre to the genuinely moving and melancholy. Lawrence’s interaction with the audience is always respectful and kind.
As we know from the classic musical “Cabaret,” nightclub artists in the Weimar era attempted to respond to the rise of the Nazis with satire and wink-wink humor. The majority of the material in “Lavender Songs” was written by two Jewish composers, Friedrich Hollaender and Mischa Spoliansky. Fortunately, both escaped Germany, Hollaender to work in Hollywood and Spoliansky in England. Several of the other musical artists represented in the show were not so lucky. Some committed suicide and a few were killed in concentration camps. From a theatrical family, Hollaender gained great success in 1930 by writing the film score for “The Blue Angel” with Marlene Dietrich, also a star on the cabaret scene. She continued to sing his songs after both came to Hollywood. Spoliansky moved to London, where he worked in the film industry, writing music for Alfred Hitchcock and establishing a fertile working relationship with Paul Robeson, of all people.
Lawrence’s first work about Weimar cabaret was “Cabaret Verboten” in 1991. That piece was produced across the country, as well as in London and Sweden. A translator, lyricist and performer, Lawrence is the official English translator of songs by Friedrich Hollaender and Franz Waxman, another German Jewish composer who escaped after a beating by Nazi thugs. Lawrence also created the English lyrics on Ute Lemper’s (the original European Sally Bowles) recording, “Berlin Cabaret Songs.” He has translated all the original German songs for “Lavender Songs” into witty, idiomatic English, as well as writing the spoken material. As an actor, Lawrence has worked with the Manhattan Theatre Club and the Mint Theater in New York, as well as regionally, and in film and television.
The remount of this program won a 2008 Bistro Award for Lawrence and his director Jason Jacobs, and it seems even more timely now. Lawrence does not speak extensively about the current administration in Washington, but he certainly doesn’t ignore it. A sense of imminent danger hangs over the show, just as it must have in 1930’s Berlin. Not that there is any direct comparison, but just a sense that the good times may be coming to an end. The music director is Ariela Bohrod, who accompanies on piano.
“Lavender Songs” will be at Pangea for two more Saturdays, March 11 and April 8. The March show falls just before Purim, a perfect time for this kind of entertainment. Pangea serves food, but there is a wealth of restaurants in the area.