Tiger Lillies: Music & Mania

A feast of polished high entertainment and the theater of the bizarre that celebrates life on the midway: at Vienna’s Gasometer in March

Martyn Jacques confronts the snake woman at the dress rehearsal of the Tiger Lillies show | Photo: Paul Gillingwater

It was a crisp Spring evening at planet.tt Bank Austria Hall of Vienna’s Gasometer, as all manner of freaks and fans of freaks gathered to witness the Tiger Lillies Freakshow (15-20 March 2011).

Inspired by Berthold Brecht with a nod to the Grand Guignol, this English fusion of music and circus known as the Tiger Lillies consists of a Martyn (Jacques) and a brace of Adrians (Huge [sic] and Stout).  Together, the Lillies offer a feast of polished and highly entertaining music and theater of the bizarre that celebrates life in the midway: both a circus sideshow attraction and a paeon to the folks who live beyond the fringes of “normal” society.

Each song offers a pastiche of image fragments from circuses’ weirdness past and degenerates throughout history, delivered with the assorted music talents of piano, guitar, drums, percussion, double bass, accordion, theremin and even a musical saw.

Established in 1989, and subsequently spawning a host of imitators, the Lillies evoke a tradition of dark cabaret that works well in early 21st century Austria, where they performed this week for audiences at the Gasometer, a huge 19th century utility tower turned shopping and entertainment center.

The musical artistry (of which more later) was complemented by a troupe of talented circus performers, consisting of three danceuses (one of whom is a very flexible contortionist), two little people, a skilled juggler and a token BBW (“the Fat Lady”).  Based on a set of illuminated circus caravans and a few special props, the show manages to convey an atmosphere of bizarre Gypsy cool.  Highlights include a massive marionette, a breathtaking trapeze performance, assorted acts of jugglery, pratfalls, danse macabre, and genial clowning.

A mood of fatalism, surreal beauty and impending doom is conveyed through songs which contain messages of judgment, Hell and damnation, reminding the audience that Der Tod comes for us all, and though we may caper and prance through our lives, the final verdict is inescapable.

Despite this apparent nihilism, the upbeat tempo and sensuous beauty of selected musical numbers keeps us firmly engaged in the material world, with its strange mélange of mutant flipper-boys, Siamese twins, six armed giants and the sexual wiles of the sinuous serpent woman.

But while the circus acts themselves are enough to entertain and amaze, the real treat is the music.  With Jacques’ accomplished swings between a soaring falsetto and a rasping guttural roar, the dark humor of the lyrics both shocks and dazzles with virtuosity.  No topic is taboo, from strange sexual deviance, through mental illness and madness (with liberal application of lobotomies) to the lighter topics of deformities, prostitution and murder.

Supporting the text is the insistent musicality of the two Adrians, who knowingly wink at the audience, hinting at the ultimate joke in which we all share — our eventual, yet ever-impending deaths.

The audience of cultured Viennese seemed to enjoy the edginess of the performance, and with two curtain calls, showed their genuine appreciation.  Such an act has a valuable function, and despite the Lillies’ insistence that it’s just entertainment, it seems to this reviewer that there will always be a demand for musicians who delight in poking away at the darker corners of our collective psyche – especially when they are as original and entertaining as the Tiger Lillies’ Freakshow.

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