Outside, the newspapers trumpet recession and war, but here in the theatre, the band is swinging, the mood devil-may-care, and a couple in evening dress waltz down the aisle. You could be forgiven for thinking you'd somehow ended up in a Weimar Republic cabaret. In fact, that's exactly the intention of this performance by the Berlin singer Max Raabe and his backing band, the 13-piece Palast Orchester who are reviving the long-gone glamour of the '20s and '30s.
(Soundbite of song "Singing in the Rain")
Mr. MAX RAABE: (Singing) I'm singing in the rain, Just singing in the rain. What a glorious feeling. I'm happy again. I'm laughing at clouds, So dark up above. The sun's in my heart, And I'm ready for love...
LYDEN: He sings in a style that hasn't been heard live since, well, the Second World War. All right, maybe someone else has done it, but not like Max Raabe. We're at Washington, D.C.'s Lisner Auditorium. At least I think that's where we are. You'd never know it's 2008.
(Soundbite of song "Singing in the Rain")
LYDEN: Max Raabe is Jimmy Dorsey, Paul Whiteman, and a little bit of Fred Astaire come back to life. He's rail-thin and top-draw in a white tie and tails, leaning against the grand piano in a studied loose pose, as if waiting for Marlene Dietrich to arrive. When he isn't singing, he is delivering spot on patter in a droll to tonic monotone.
Mr. MAX RAABE (Singer; Band Leader, Palast Orchester): Music has always been closely tied to destiny and personal tragedy. Who cares? As long as you're not involved.
LYDEN: Knocking back a glass of water with the 45-year-old singer before the show, he graciously admitted that he was destined for this. He sang in a choir as a boy in Westphalia in Germany. And on Sunday afternoons, he watched old black-and-white films on television.
Mr. RAABE: And of course, everybody was singing in these films. And so this was - I was quite familiar with this repertoire. And my grandmother always spoke about these big varieties and dance bands and orchestras. And so I was - I expected it when I came to Berlin, and there wasn't. And I thought Berlin needs an orchestra like this. And then I asked students, friends of mine, because I found some original stock arrangements, and so it starts.
LYDEN: Lately, there have been comparisons here to the Weimar Republic, mostly because of the financial situation. But when you think of it, what does it mean to you as a German culturally? What is the sound of it like? What is the feel of it for you?
Mr. RAABE: There's a humor, a timeless humor in these pieces, and a timeless elegance. So, for me, it's not a question of nostalgia to bring these songs, it's a kind of humor, of entertaining, and the most elegant pop music we ever had in a modern time, in a wild time. But there's an elegance on the stage which you can't find anywhere on any stage nowadays.
(Soundbite of song "Tango Ballade")
LYDEN: I've always thought that period was incredibly elegant. I've always wished that I could, you know, dress up and go to a cabaret performance with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the '30s and '40s. I would be quite happy. Maybe lots of us want that sort of elegance.
Mr. RAABE: Yes, but alas it was not for everybody as elegant as it seems in these old black-and-white pictures. It was a hard time for most of the people, but everybody was able to go to a cinema and see this dream world. And this is a music that was written for this nonexistent elegant world.
(Soundbite of music)
LYDEN: That dream world shimmers in the auditorium, a film made for ein nacht, one night. Women towards the front wear seductive '30s ball gowns that cling to their curves. And on their arms, tuxedo gentlemen are to be dependent upon. But it's not just Max who sets the tone for the evening. He's backed by the Palast Orchester. Also dressed in tuxedos, black tie, they have their own distinct charms. There's just one woman among them, the violinist, and she shines like a flame in her red evening gown. The Palast Orchester is exquisitely polished and versatile. The musicians can pull off screwball comedy, ringing bells one moment, and the next, the brass section has dropped their horns and come out to sing, well, you'll know the tale.
(Soundbite of song "Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf?")
THE PALAST ORCHESTER: (Singing) Who's afraid of the big bad wolf, the big bad wolf, the big bad wolf? Who's afraid of the big bad wolf? La la la la la...
LYDEN: If there's added poignancy to this performance, it's because we the audience know about the horror that eventually eclipsed the Weimar era. Some of Max Raabe's most popular songs were originally performed by the Comedian Harmonists. Their close harmonies were astronomically popular in the '20s and '30s. By 1934, the group had split up, and the Jewish members were forced to flee. Germany's cafe society vanished, and so many voices were silenced.
Mr. RAABE: When Adolf Hitler came to power, this kind of irony, this kind of elegance, this kind of lifestyle was gone. There was no place for irony. And most of our repertoire was written by Jewish composers. And we lost this. It's a shame.
(Soundbite of song "In Einem Kuhlen Grunde")
LYDEN: By the end of the night, the gloriously attired ladies and gentlemen have turned into something of a velvet riot, mobbing Max and the orchestra for autographs. Someone down front has unfurled a huge, "We love you, Max" banner. An elderly couple passes us wearing enormous homemade Max buttons. Yet for as long as this music lingers, it transforms us, and we carry the spirit of a lost world into an autumn evening, thinking, what did I do with my opera gloves? Is the champagne properly chilled? Does my carriage await? Can he open an oyster?
(Soundbite of song "Cheek to Cheek")
Mr. RAABE: (Singing) Heaven, I'm in heaven, And the cares that hung around me through the week, Seem to vanish like a gambler's lucky streak, When we're out together dancing cheek to cheek...
(Soundbite of acknowledgment)
LYDEN: Parting words now from a guy Max Raabe really appreciates, Cole Porter.
LYDEN: (Reading) The world has gone mad today, And good's bad today, And black's white today, And day's night today, When most guys today, That women prize today, Are just silly gigolos. And though I'm not a great romancer, I know that I'm bound to answer, When you propose, Anything goes.
LYDEN: And off we go. That's All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.