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Monday, June 22, 2009

Last Night: Vagabond Opera at Amnesia

Posted By on Mon, Jun 22, 2009 at 10:31 AM

click to enlarge smvagabond.jpg
Vagabond Opera
Sunday, June 21, 2009

Last night was the closest I'd ever been to both a theremin and a musical saw. The musical saw was played by a beautiful young blonde woman, attired in black and red lace ruffles. She was performing with a multicultural modern vaudeville act called Vagabond Opera.

The theremin was employed to great effect by another young woman who played with the opening act, Dan Cantrell. She was also festively if less theatrically clad. It was quite a night.

When told that Vagabond Opera combined elements of opera with burlesque, gypsy music, and time-travel to 1920s Paris with Josephine Baker, an evening of their music at Amnesia  proved irresistible.

We arrived shortly after 9 p.m. and caught the tail end of the sound check, which seemed theatrical enough to us, but we were assured by a young devotee (as events would prove, "camp follower" would be an accurate term) that Vagabond Opera would return in costumes and makeup.

The opening act was led by Dan Cantrell of the 'Toids, performing with an ad hoc group that featured vocalist Lily Stern. With Cantrell on accordion, Meredith Anne Yayanos on violin and theremin, and several talented and versatile percussionists, they played a variety of Eastern European, Lebanese, and Greek songs. They were frequently joined by Rachel Brice, a glamorous tattooed bellydancer who first appeared standing and writhing at the end of Amnesia's bar. The limited square footage somewhat inhibited her movement, putting one in mind of the exotic and scandalous (but untrained) dancer Ida Rubenstein, or Theda Bara. When Rachel Brice arrived onstage, with a bit more room to move, she was much more impressive, and inspired not only adulation but a certain amount of simulation from the crowd. (Some of the young women had, it proved, taken classes from her.)

After a generous set of well over an hour from Cantrell and crew (during which we were pleased to find that listening to a sad Greek lament could make one happy), Vagabond Opera took the stage. They were in costume and makeup as promised: leader Eric Stern, a trained opera singer, on accordion, and singer/sax player Robin Jackson, both in striped trousers, natty vests, and hats, accompanied by drummer Mark Burdon, cellist Skip Von Kuske, and Jason Flores on stand-up bass. Even better dressed were the two beautiful women, the blonde Ursula Knudson, virtuoso on both the musical saw and violin, and a dark-haired woman whose Polish-sounding name we never quite caught, adorable in a wide-eyed Maggie Gyllenhal/Betty Boop way, and fetchingly attired in black corset with plenty of decolletage. When she came out to sing a Yiddish song about a gonif (thief), with the haunting refrain "If you kiss a thief, count your teeth", attired in babushka and skirt, she did a strip tease that would have been even more effective if we hadn't already seen her in what she was wearing underneath.

Vagabond Opera performed two long and lively sets with a brief intermission, playing everything from the Turkish Menoush to creditable versions of Edith Piaf's "Milord" and Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's "Alabama Song" from Mahagonny (more in the Hal Willner vein than the Doors). There wasn't any overt reference to Josephine Baker, but who cares when you get songs in 11 -- or was it 13? -- different languages, including Romany, Romanes, and Rom (they're different, it seems), a new song called "Absinthe and Cuban Cigars," and two renditions of a song called "Amnesia" written in tribute to the venue.

The second time around, during the last encore of the evening, Vagabond Opera played "Amnesia" in honor of Amnesite Saul, who had missed it the first time while amusing himself backstage. He enjoyed its witty lyrics so much -- "this place dressed in red...may this flower of Valencia now and forever bloom...raise your glasses I say, tonight let's all be gay (boys)" -- that Saul ended up onstage, pouring shots from a bottle into the upturned faces of the audience who opened their mouths to him like so many willing baby birds. (They scattered when he flung the bottle to the floor in a fine Gypsy frenzy, just before 2 a.m.)

Lots 'o entertainment for $10.

I left in a fine mood -- that even survived seeing a couple who'd been the picture of romance entwined on the dance floor moments before having a spat right outside the door. (Oh love, your magic spell is everywhere.) It was an evening I wouldn't soon forget.

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Meredith Brody


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