It's a pity that any Dresden Dolls fan ever has to see the band in a venue other than a theater. Because if a musical pair was ever to the proscenium born, it's the Boston cabaret rock duo of singer-pianist Amanda Palmer and drummer-guitarist Brian Viglione. The cracked decay of the Orpheum Theatre fits their flamboyant Weimar-meets-DIY aesthetic like a tattered, fingerless glove.
Saturday night the indefatigable Dolls - and we mean that, judging by Palmer's painful cough and intermittent expectoration - hosted a rich evening of high drama and low comedy, deep melancholy and unfettered silliness. And the sold-out crowd that had come to let its freak flags fly - literally or vicariously - played its role accordingly.
Audience participation was key to opener Meow Meow's success. The dizzy, bawdy chanteuse popped up "late" for her appearance in the aisle. During her 25-minute set she roped in various game patrons to help her with her luggage and costume changes, serve as human microphone stands, or simply paw her adoringly as she sang - quite exceptionally it must be noted - "Ne Me Quitte Pas." A finale of slapsticky crowd-surfing found the classically-trained dancer and singer placed back onstage in a full split.
Meow Meow also lurked about in a tutu, en pointe, during middle act Luminescent Orchestrii's lively, multilingual set of gypsy-punk-klezmer mash-ups.
Both acts, and a short musical skit by the Lexington High School drama team, were perfect table setters for the main course.
Clomping onstage in Nazi coats and caps, the Dolls began the night with Pink Floyd's sinister "In the Flesh," performing with a leering gusto Roger Waters definitely would appreciate. Of course that satirical song's disquieting message of hate is the exact opposite of the band's open-armed inclusiveness, which was evident in the other four illuminating covers the duo threaded through their stunning hour and 40-minute set.
They delved deep into Neutral Milk Hotel's "Two-Headed Boy," with Palmer alternately braying and crooning, losing herself in the song and heating up its chilly, dark images of floating in a specimen jar.
They kicked up their heels and their cheeky voguing for a raucous version of "Mein Herr" from the musical "Cabaret" and bashed out the Beastie Boys' classic "Fight For Your Right" with Palmer on drums, Viglione on vocals and guitar, and Luminescent's Sxip Shirey on melodica. There was also a jubilant all-hands-on-deck encore of Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." That eclectic smattering shed light on the band's unique boundary-busting approach to composition.
Palmer's evident illness never intruded on her ability to whip herself and the audience into the musical maelstrom. Instead she used her ragged, cold-hampered voice to further evoke the fissures - romantic, political, emotional, and otherwise - in her songs, lending an acrid edge to "Missed Me," a scratchy ferocity to "Girl Anachronism" and a world-weary ache to the grieving "Boston," teasing and pounding her keyboard with appropriate tenderness or fury.
She also took it out to the crowd, hitting both side boxes and the balcony during "The Gardener," directing the spotlight operator as she went.
Viglione matched his partner's vim with his own vigor, gesticulating and preening as precisely as he played his kit, even multitasking by playing acoustic guitar, bass drum and high hat, and singing backup vocals simultaneously for several tunes.
By the time the final note of "Sweet Dreams" had sounded, the crowd onstage had more than earned their curtain call.