“People don’t think of Marlene Dietrich as a singer. I don’t think she did either.*” Janice Hall has no such issue. Operatically trained, the artiste’s straight back, careful enunciation and excellent German (intermittent) are all that speak of cross-over until she opens up that voice very briefly near the end of the evening. Which is to say, she isn’t out of place. In 1937, Variety declared a list of stars box office poison. Two of the names on the list were Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich. Hepburn bought the rights to The Philadelphia Story, Dietrich went to Europe to become a cabaret and concert performer. The ladies reinvented themselves–as Janice Hall is doing with her move back to New York from Germany and from Covent Garden to cabaret/theater…perhaps the reason for this particular show.
Illusions (Friedrich Hollaender, from A Foreign Affair), a find of a song, aptly eases us into the evening: Truth is hard and tough as nails/That’s why we need fairy tales/I’m all through with logical conclusions/Why should I deny myself illusions? The rendition is as stylish and understated as Hall’s elbow length gloves and simple black gown. How Beautiful You Are, Berlin (Jean Gilbert/Alfred Schoenfeld) in German and English, bears the hard edged language, short phrases, clear consonants, and tonal changes of the Germanic idiom. The singer makes it clear even before translation, this is a love letter to the city.
With songs from Dietrich’s repertoire and others of place or period, Hall takes us through a life robustly lived. Introductions are blessedly brief. The evening has a well expressed through line, including anecdotes: Apparently, assuming she hadn’t a chance, Dietrich appeared at her audition for The Blue Angel without an appropriate song. When pressed she performed You’re the Cream in My Coffee (B.G. DeSylva/Lew Brown/Ray Henderson) with which she got the part of Lola-Lola, the vulgar siren?! The musical arrangement of this song is flip, frothy, and insouciant, as is Hall who manages to make a single kicked back heel mischievous. (One longs for more of this sizzle, even some bawdier moments. From an elegant, self contained performer, they’d be all the more effective). Ritt Henn’s whistling and ukulele make the mood infectious. (Hall has two wonderful acappella duets with the excellent bassist later) Lola (Friedrich Hollaender/Robert Leibman) appropriately follows—a little pianissimo is always bound to please.
Among the Hollywood songs, some are familiar, others spanking fresh. I Couldn’t Be Annoyed (Leo Robin/Richard Whiting—from Blonde Venus) has timeless, ironic lyrics sadly few have heard in concert while The Boys in the Backroom (Friedrich Hollaender/Frank Loesser—from Destry Rides Again) has been sung and parodied many times. Dietrich was an easy mark for parody. Thank God, Hall didn’t choose to imitate the lady, but rather to lend her own sensitive interpretations to the evening. (Of course, we wouldn’t have missed the leg up on the stool rung for anything).
At the start of World War II, “Dietrich was riding high when Goebbels offered anything she wanted to come back to Germany and be their Nazi queen.*” Her response was to become an American citizen in 1939. She joined the USO, most often traveling with soldiers rather than the entertainers. There are iconic photos of her wearing a uniform. It’s extremely surprising to hear Pete Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone, a song utilized by the peace movement here, translated by Max Colpet to German. In den Kasernen (M.Philippe-Gerard/Hertha Koch-English-Janice Hall) 1964, expresses Dietrich’s rueful feelings after the war equally well: When will we see/That this makes no sense/A cross in a graveyard/Makes no sense. Hall’s angry, poignant versions hit home. In 1945, Dietrich returned to Germany for the first time since 1930, accompanied by the 82nd army division. Considered a traitor, her reception was hostile. (She never saw her homeland alive again). Dietrich was 44 years old when she reinvented herself on the stage. Noel Coward opened her appearance at London’s Café de Paris with a poem:
We know God made trees, and the birds and the bees,
And seas for the fishes to swim in.
We are also aware that He had quite a flair
For creating exceptional women.
Now we all might enjoy seeing Helen of Troy
As a gay cabaret entertainer,
But I doubt that she could be one quarter as good
As our legend’ry, lovely, Marlene.
La Vie en Rose (Marcel Louiguy/Edith Piaf—in French), I Can’t Give You Anything But Love (Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields) and Honeysuckle Rose—missing heat here—(Fats Waller/Andy Razaf) must’ve given a completely different tone to Dietrich’s act. Hall uses these to buoy the actress’s next chapter as an international sensation. Still, the war remained in her gut and Dietrich’s own lyrics to Mother Have You Forgiven Me? refer to her exile from Germany. These are delivered by Hall with effective sobriety. By the 1970s, the illusion was held together by make-up, corsets and tape.
The choice and sequence of songs in Grand Illusions is pitch perfect to emotional and historical arcs. In the course of the evening, Janice Hall stares over the audience into the past, hops up on the piano to drape herself, sits on a stool like stillness itself, suffers, and roundly slaps her rear for emphasis, depicting the various chapters of Dietrich’s life. (A vast simplification). Her strong, level, alto/mezzo voice has the tenor of her heroine’s, though not its smoke or rasp. It’s pitched well to convey these songs. This is a talented thespian (and writer). I’m extremely curious to see what she’ll come up with next.
Paul Trueblood’s arrangements are sensitive and genuine. He moves from era to era and from locale to locale with deftness, creating as much angst in one song as he delivers sass in another. Integration of the talented bass (Ritt Henn) is seamless. Trueblood is particularly generous in his showcasing of both vocalist and bass and one of our finer accompanists.
Photos by Maryann Lopinto
Grand Illusions-The Music of Marlene Dietrich
Directed by Peter Napolitano
Janice Hall, Vocals
Paul Trueblood, Musical Director/Pianist
Ritt Henn, Bass, Ukulele
Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street
Feb. 27, 28, March 7, 8, 11
Other Musical Legend Tributes at Urban Stages:Pearl Bailey, Kaye Ballard, Nat King Cole