By Myra Chanin
Jeremy Lawrence, best known for creating and starring in several one-man shows which explore Tennessee Williams’ persona in the playwright’s own words, has once again switched sex, setting and lingo. He’s revived another alter ego, Tante Fritzi, who stars in Lavender Songs: A Queer Weimar Berlin Cabaret. Lawrence’s acclaimed play with music features his own translations of songs written or performed by daring queer and Jewish Kabarettists in pre-Hitler, Weimar Republic Berlin. Lawrence’s chilling performance recreates that edgy, gender-bending, smoky, sexy, subversive world and celebrates the Jewish and queer artists who mocked and derided the ever-lengthening shadow of fascism for as long as they could.
Lavender Songs began as an event created by German Cabaret scholar Alan Lareau for the US Holocaust Museum in conjunction with an exhibition entitled “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945,” and won many awards. Lawrence recreated the piece prior to the 2016 Trump election which rewarded Tante Fritzi with a long, successful run in 2017 at Pangea. Back for its fourth must-see engagement as the mid-term election approaches, Lawrence hopes its celebration of resistance will energize voters into democratic victories in the US House and Senate. Naturally a percentage of the profits from the Pangea engagement will go to Act Blue.
The majority of the Lavender Songs were composed by Frederick Hollander and Mischa Spoliansky — Jews who managed to escape from Germany. Hollander rose to international fame for “Falling In Love Again,” sung by the bisexual Dietrich in The Blue Angel. He also had a very successful career in Hollywood, composing music for over 100 films, including fellow Berliner Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948) and Sabrina (1954). Other composers represented in this show were not so lucky. Fall and Lohner-Beda were executed. Schiffer and Tucholsky committed suicide. Nelson survived by hiding, Baltz was finally released from a concentration camp.
Pangea is the perfect club for this kind of production. This petite room which normally seats 60 people makes everyone who sings on its deep purple stage or strolls through the aisles stroking the patrons totally up front and personal. All that’s missing is the cigarette smoke, no longer permitted indoors in New York. Tante Fritzi appears in a fashionable-in-the-‘20’s beaded green velvet, off-the-shoulder gown, a long single strand of pearls, a feather boa and just enough makeup. Controlled undulations ripple her wavy but Germanical controlled blonde wig. Lawrence dresses like a woman, but he makes absolutely no attempt to sound like a woman. His voice remains deep and manly but by the third song it no longer matters. He’s who he pretends to be. Totally Tante Fritzi.
It’s very easy to join Fritzi in a stroll through pre-Hitler’s queer Berlin. She takes you to the Tiergarten, the legendary city park where anonymous sexual encounters were commonplace until one of the encounterers divested himself of his anonymity and turned out to be polizei. Fritzi also takes you to gay bars, where one meets all kinds of men from communists to national-socialists, and even ends up in a menage-a-trois in the bedroom of a seemingly conventional married pair.
The minor keys songs are melodic. They have fox trot rhythms that make you tap your feet and want to dance pudenda to pudenda. Jeremy Lawrence’s translations are excellent. There was one song I’d never heard before. A cheerful Hollander march entitled “The Jews Are All to Blame,” which must have been a best-seller in the beer halls. And lest lesbians feel neglected, Spoliansky and Schiffer pay homage to them with a “A Special Girlfriend.”
Among Fritzi’s remarks: “One love to last for a lifetime? That’s not what I have in mind,” and “For a 10-pfennig ticket, he told you where the Johns were and where the cops weren’t.” “I’m not Jewish. Do I look that intelligent?” “Shake a swastika very carefully or it could become a hammer and sickle.” The cynical effect assaults Fritzi’s observations with reality.
At Pangea, Lawrence’s performance is spellbinding, elegant, substantial and raw. It’s also a frightening lesson in history. What followed this period in Germany is something that we certainly don’t want to happen here. But it could if it remains the status quo.
Director Jason Jacobs, a former NYTheatre.com’s “Person of the Year,” has done an excellent, nuanced job, blending subtlety and fear. Another high spot of the performance for me was watching accompanist Ariela Bohrod’s beautifully trained arched finders on the keyboard. Exquisite. She completes her Masters degree at Mannes College at the New School for Music in the spring on a totally deserved full-tuition merit scholarship.
Only one caveat. Why no Kurt Weill/Lotte Lenya material? Pirate Jenny would have made a sensational encore.
Two more Monday Night performances are scheduled for Tante Fritzi on October 29 and November 5 at 7 pm at Pangea in the becoming-more-chic-by-the-second 178 Second Avenue between 10th and 12th Street.