Under the spiegeltents, all the Seaport’s a stage


By Lee Ann Westover

Adventurous roster of musical and theatrical entertainment


Through October

South Street Seaport’s Pier 17

Through the early part of the 20th century, itinerant theaters crisscrossed Europe—not unlike the Broadway road shows of today. Velvet-draped, teak-trimmed “spiegeltents” brought vaudeville-style entertainment to the public in portable opulence. New York’s own spiegeltent extravaganza, Spiegelworld, returns to Pier 17 at the South Street Seaport this August and September. As patrons stroll past the seaport’s industrial surroundings, through the manicured beer garden and into a tent’s low wooden doorway, they enter a world of Weimar-era sensuality that bursts with the energy of modern New York.

Last year, all Spiegelworld events took place in a single tent—“Le Salon Perdu.” Due to the volume of acts on the bill this year, Spiegelworld has added a new tent for 2008, “The Deluxe.” Ross Mollison, Spiegelworld impresario, explains: “Having a second venue allows us to incorporate so many fantastic things.” Programming will indeed reach chaotic levels. In addition to two theatrical productions that are exclusive to Spiegelworld, visitors to the site can enjoy an adult-themed comedy show six nights a week, “The Gazillionaire’s Late Night Lounge,” as well as a concert series, three weeks of programming for the New York International Fringe Festival and nightly DJs in the garden. Mollison adds, “I’m a bit allergic to the word festival, but I really like the idea of a carnival…a summer carnival.”

Throughout the season, the two theatrical productions form the backbone of Spiegelworld’s programming. After enjoying a nearly sold-out run in 2007, the vaudevillian celebration “Absinthe” brings back many beloved acts from previous seasons, as well as a bevy of new faces. According to Mollison “the world’s greatest variety show” will feature all manner of circus and musical performers from as far afield as the Ukraine and Russia. “We’ve brought in a lot of artists that we have found in our travels over the last twelve months. We’ve got a lot of surprises for people this year.”

Mollison and his partners created a new word to describe the particular brand of theater featured in “Desir”—“Theatrobatic.” Company director Wayne Harrison, choreographer John “Cha Cha” O’Connell (“Enchanted,” “Moulin Rouge”) and music director Josh Abrahams (“Moulin Rouge”) have created an interpretation of life backstage at the “greatest nightclub the world has known.” Mollison describes “Desir” as being loosely based on the 1950’s film “La Ronde.” In celebration of the French jewelry house (and show sponsor) Boucheron’s 150th anniversary, “Desir” is also intertwined with characters from the company’s long history. As if to underscore themes of indulgence and exclusivity, Boucheron will host a jewelry boutique onsite. Of the show, Mollison says, “People are going to be surprised at how sexy it is. There are no words, even though the script is more than 40 pages long.”

On the nights when “Desir” and “Absinthe” go dark, a series of concerts will feature a stylistically adventurous roster of musical entertainment.

On August 10th, Aussie diva Meow Meow and Justin Bond of NYC’s own Kiki and Herb opened the series with a show entitled “Heavy Petting.” Based on the past work of both performers, the night was expected to juggle the entertainers’ vocal excellence with a truly naughty sense of humor.

The cabaret theme continues throughout the summer, with performances from the glamorous Ute Lemper on August 26th. You’ll have to wait until September 16th to hear Martha Wainwright interpret Edith Piaf—a Spiegelworld exclusive. The lovely Montréaler’s authentic accent and intense, plaintive tone will surely do justice to her inspiration.

As much as vintage burlesque and Bertolt Brecht seem to ooze out of every corner of the spiegeltents, Mollison has taken great care to stay innovative in his programming as well. Tortured Soul will bring their unique set of live house music to Spiegeltent on August 31st. On September 23rd, don’t miss Travis Sullivan’s 18-piece Bjorkestra as they perform songs from the genre-bending singer’s career in riotous splendor. Tickets will likely go fast for rare intimate shows from the Latin-funk combo Antibalas! On October 5th and strange little spitfire Nellie McKay on October 12th.

Spiegelworld isn’t just for the grownups, however. Before the pasties come out on September 20th, The Sippy Cups will spit out a set of authentic and hilarious rock and roll—much to the ecstatic enjoyment of little ones and parents alike.

Perhaps the strangest of all events will take place each Thursday night at 9pm, as Pier 17 plays host to New York City’s first ever Headphone Disco. The kick off party featured Time Out NY Nightlife Editor DJ Bruce Tatum, after which DJ Peter Munch will take over the turntables as resident spin doctor. Mollison says of the event, “Imagine two DJs, two separate channels on wireless headphones, a thousand people dancing, and absolutely no sound…apart from the crowd singing along. It’s hilarious to watch and fantastically fun to participate in.”

With such a varied world of talent on two small stages, it’s hard to decipher what common thread ties it all together. When I ask Mollison what he wishes for Spiegeworld audiences, he responds without missing a beat, “The whole environment is about enjoying live entertainment in an unstructured way… and mixing genre. When you are a kid, going to the carnival is so exiting. I really want to make Spiegelworld as exciting for a 45-year-old as it is for that little 5-year-old.” From the looks of it, he is already succeeding brilliantly.

For more information and a complete listing of all Spiegelworld events, go to spiegelworld.com