German born Ute Lemper has intermittently channeled Marlene Dietrich for much of her career. This highly theatrical show is based in large part on a three-hour phone call between the ladies in 1988. After receiving the French Molière Award for her Paris performance in Cabaret, young Lemper sent a respectful postcard to the star essentially apologizing for media attention comparing the artists.
Much to her surprise, she received a telephone call in response. From that call and, one assumes, additional research, we hear Dietrich’s ‘first person’ recollection of the vocation she seems to disdain, passionate bisexual love affairs driven by pugnacious independence – with a nod to her open marriage, strong political views, and an enormously fraught relationship with her homeland. Performance is in English, German, and French.
“People don’t know me. They know my face, my cheekbones, my allure…” Dietrich
Two songs rarely associated with Dietrich have decidedly political context: Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” -more angry and emphatic than a usually mournful rendition and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind,” here effectively a rousing wake-up call.
In “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” (Lerner & Lowe) one of several Burt Bacharach arrangements utilized in Las Vegas during Dietrich’s later career, lyrics fight with interpretation. Lemper haughtily sings a middle-of-the-road arrangement without a bit of wistful regret.
“The Boys in The Backroom” (Loesser/Hollaender), or as the vocalist sings “beckroom,” delivers vibrato where Dietrich warbled. Brazen, fist-on-hip attitude ably conjures the saloon scene. “Lili Marlene” (Schultze/Leip) accompanied only by piano is rife with defeat and longing.
Highlights: “The Ruins of Berlin,” written during incarceration, is like listening to weeds push their way up between cracks in the pavement. Lemper’s arms sway out. The number moves from lament to feverish, rhythmic dance, then back, faster and faster… “Black Market”epitomizes Weimar Karabett. Part spoken, part sung, the darkly waltzy song could be a George Grosz painting depicting evil to which one has become accustomed. (Both by Fredrich Hollaender.)
Johnny Mercer’s “When the World Was Young” shows deep sadness through tough exterior. It’s simplicity affects. In “Dejeuner Du Matin” (Prevert/Kosma), the singer emerges an otherwise self-sufficient woman who bows to every selfish need of her man as in Apache dance.
Lemper is a long, sexy drink of water whose steely demeanor alternates with primal sensuality. She has a gritty voice that lends itself to an industrial strength program, pivots between satire, pain and fury, enunciates beautifully, and communicates the era with gut comprehension. Unfortunately, only once in the entire show does the vocalist look at an audience member- with a comment about his glancing at her legs. This deprives us of what should be a deeply intimate and ultimately unnerving connection.
Several selections distance themselves from Dietrich when MD/Pianist Vana Gierig injects highly contemporary riffs and Lemper vocally slip/slides or howls passages like R & B. Were the show to be comprised of fresh takes, this might serve, but couched in authenticity, it’s dissonant. The inclusion of an electric keyboard cheapens and updates whereas violin and cello enhance. Narrative, though extremely illuminating, could successfully be cut by a third, especially at the top heavy opening.
“My soul belongs to France. My heart belongs to England. Nothing belongs to Germany except my body when I’m dead.” Dietrich
Music Director/Pianist- Vana Gierig; Romain Lecuyer-Bass, Cyril Garac-Violin
Production Photos by David Andrako.
Café Carlyle presents
Ute Lemper: Rendezvous With Marlene (Dietrich)
Through March 3, 2018
The Carlyle Hotel
35 East 76th Street- Entrance on Madison Avenue