How can you not love a musical act that can move from Kurt Weill's "Alabama Song" and Disney's "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" to a pre-Gene Kelly "Singing in the Rain" and the Walter Jurmann classic "Mein Gorilla hat 'ne Villa im Zoo" ("My gorilla has a villa in the zoo")? And that's just a taste of what Germany's Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester brought to UCLA's Royce Hall on Tuesday night.
With the stage set like an elegant bandstand in Germany's Weimar Republic of the '20s and early '30s, members of the 12-piece ensemble, impeccable in tuxedos, took their places. A minute later they were joined by Raabe -- beanpole thin, hair carefully slicked in place -- singing into a microphone placed on a vintage stand.
It could all have been little more than high camp, a meticulous reproduction of early lounge music. But in the superbly musical hands (and voices) of Raabe and the Palast Orchester, it was an evening as entertaining as it was informative.
Raabe was the center of attention, singing in a voice that ranged with astonishing ease from high, airy head tones to low, booming chest notes. Interspersing his numbers with sardonic introductions and commentaries, he moved with deceptive ease from such familiar American items as "These Foolish Things," "Singing in the Rain" and "Cheek to Cheek" to the German-language "You're My Greta Garbo," "You're Not the First One, but You Could Be the Last" and the inevitable "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen."
It was the setting provided by the players of the Orchester, however, as well as their extraordinary versatility, that made the package complete. Guitarist Ulrich Hoffmeier and trombonist Jorn Ranke doubled impressively on violin and viola, often forming a trio with the ensemble's sole female, the beautifully gowned Cecilia Crisafulli. Drummer Vincent Riewe was a complete percussion section in himself, dramatically working his surrounding collection of cymbals, bells and xylophone. The saxophones glided through ensemble passages, vibrato fully in sync, the trumpets hit precision accents on their rotary-valved instruments, and sousaphone player Bernd Hugo Dieterich moved the rhythm with an irresistible lift and drive.
"It's supposed to be elegant, tasteful nonsense," Raabe has said. But the music of the Palast Orchester was much more than that -- it was a celebration of an era in which German pop chanson, the American musical theater, the ebullience of the Roaring '20s and the quixotic mixture of optimism and malaise in the pre-Nazi, pre-Depression years combined to produce much of the foundation of popular music of the 20th century.