When the Cleaning Lady of the Vienna church grotto which houses the tombs of a dynasty of emperors and empresses belts out a show-stopping rendition of Johann Strauss’ lilting “Wiener Blut” while tossing dismembered body parts into her trash basket, “The Habsburgs” finally makes good on its promise as a “musical family satire.”
Strauss’ waltz, translated as “Viennese Blood,” is meant to convey Viennese spirit or pedigree, but here it is taken literally, commenting on the bloodlust of the titular dynasty which ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire (and then some) for more than 600 years.
Undoubtedly inspired by marathons like “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged” and some medieval spoofing a la “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” the tuner packs in 40 members of the royal family — from Rudolf I, born 1218, through Ludwig Viktor, who died in 1919, a year after Austria became a democracy and the Habsburgs were banished. A family tree takes up a four-page program foldout.
The conceit is cute: The Cleaning Lady (Sigrid Hauser), who sings along to golden oldies on her radio while dusting rows of coffins, meets the ghost of Maria Theresia (Maria Happel) and immediately displays her ignorance of the crypt’s inhabitants. Hence, a six-century history lesson.
The best numbers are variations on well-known music by Austro-Germanic composers. A manic Brahms “Hungarian Rhapsody” is turned into the “Degenerates’ Dance” for the family cross-dressers, lunatics, megalomaniacs and sadomasochists. Wagner’s “Wedding March” from “Lohengrin” is sung in a minor key to lodge the protest of Marie Louise (Delia Mayer) against her union with Napoleon.
While his arrangements of classics are clever, composer Christian Kolonovits’ original, very ’70s score is largely unmemorable, not helped by Michaela Ronzoni’s hackneyed lyrics. “I Am Strong,” the big ballad for Maria Theresia, the most powerful woman in Habsburg history and mother of 16 children, sounds like a Barry Manilow take on “My Way.”
Too often, Stefan Huber’s frantic staging packs the three-quarter-in-the-round stage with several centuries of historical figures. Sight gags meant to titillate dribble down to sophomoric exercises, from the onstage severing of limbs complete with grizzly sound effects, to the birth of one of Maria Theresia’s brood under a tablecloth.
Still, there are moments to treasure, especially with the Spanish branch of the family. Vainglorious Philipp the Handsome (Sascha Oskar Weis) and his wife, Johanna the Mad (Mayer), share a delicious tango, “Te Quiero.”
The final scene, in which delusional Franz Joseph (played by all five male cast members) celebrates his last Christmas, is touching as he repeatedly asks if his wife, the beloved Empress “Sissi,” who was assassinated in 1898, will attend, and truly hilarious in his dismissal of the foreign cuisines which have displaced his favorites on the royal menu.
But for every good scene, there’s an embarrassment like “Prayer to the Sperm,” Karl VI’s plea for a male heir.
With a small cast playing 39 roles, it’s tough for anyone to make a dent, but Weis and Mayer stand out as the Spaniards. Happel, who looks disarmingly like the real Maria Theresia, is an appropriately acid-voiced force of nature, but Hauser steals the show as the ditzy “Putzfrau,” surprising everyone when, in act two, she unleashes some wild coloratura.
Despite its satirical aspirations, “The Habsburgs” rarely rises above cheeky naughtiness. Watching archetypes behaving badly only goes so far.