Publication: Northern Soul
Date: 6 February, 2020
By: Kevin Bourke

★ ★ ★ ★

It was 1987 in Paris and young cabaret performer Ute Lemper was opening as Sally Bowles in the stage musical Cabaret.

The production was a huge success, with Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in the front row on the first night. Many of the show’s rave reviews dubbed Lemper ‘the new Marlene Dietrich’ and, somewhat embarrassed by the comparison, Lemper sent a postcard to her hero, then aged 78 and a recluse in her Paris apartment, essentially apologising for the media hype. Lemper, after all, was just at the beginning of her career in theatre and music, whereas Dietrich could look back on a long, fulfilled life of movies, music, incredible collaborations, love stories and stardom. To her utter astonishment, Lemper recalls that “Marlene rang me, out of the blue, and we had a three hour phone conversation about her career, her love affairs, her songs. I put it away in my memory and rarely talked about it.”

Five years later, Dietrich was dead. But she lives again in Lemper’s enthralling new show Rendezvous With Marlene, inspired by that remarkable conversation. “I decided it was time to give her life again, mixed with my own choices and my own personal experiences,” explains Lemper. “It’s a dialogue between the two of us, and I had to grow to a certain age to capture her bitterness, her craziness, to bring her story back and tell people today how important she was.

“She was a woman of the future in the 1920s, in the 1930s, and the 1960s and she still is today. She broke the rules. She hated authority and autocrats. She was against male domination of society. She was androgynous in her style. She was very much the boss and absolutely sexy. It was a new aesthetic at the time. She was equally attracted to both sexes, and slept with virtually everyone she worked with, men or women.”

All of these things, as well as a virulent hatred of the Nazis which led to her exile to Hollywood and a whole new career there collaborating with the likes of Billy Wilder and Hitchcock, as well as fervently supporting the Allies’ war efforts, are touched on in this fascinating, enlightening, intense, often moving, and always entertaining two and a half hour show. Adeptly supported by a four-piece ensemble of keyboard, violin, upright bass and drums, Lemper performs most of the songs you might expect, including Just a Gigolo, One For My Baby, The Boys in the Backroom, Lola, and, of course, Lili Marleen (Lili Marlene). Her performance is exceptional, aided by, like Dietrich, a fluency in English and French, as well as their native German, but this is much more than a mere imitation; this is clarification of the themes of loneliness, tragedy, love and friendship that informed Dietrich’s choices. Equally, tales involving such familiar names as Wilder, Burt Bacharach, Edith Piaf, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and many others become far more than just showbiz anecdotes in this superb tribute to one astonishing woman from another.

Click here to read the article on Northern Soul

Photo: MaxMara

Publication: GScene
Date: 6 Feb 2020
By: Brian Butler

From the moment the languid full-throated bluesy voice sings Falling In Love Again you know that the next 150 minutes in the company of performer Ute Lemper and subject Marlene Dietrich is going to be pure gold – and so it is.

Supported by keyboards, double bass, violin and drums Miss Lemper recreates a phone conversation she had with the reclusive octogenarian more than 30 years ago.

Marlene was a phone addict – calling the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev and other leaders to give them the benefit of her advice. The show’s premise is based solidly in Ute’s recollections of her 3-hour conversation which ranged over happiness in sexual encounters to anger and sadness about the rise of the Nazis.

The 20-something rising star had been dubbed “ The new Marlene “ by the French press after her stage opening in Cabaret and the old superstar was clearly intrigued. Ute tells us that Marlene was a woman of the future with a message to give to all of us – the need to stop asking questions about the past in order to make a better future.

Marlene declares “ If I had my life again I would live it all the same , except I’d start earlier.”

What Ute gives us is a picture of a sad and funny, highly sexed, amazingly talented woman and she cleverly weaves appropriate songs into the narrative – such as the deeply-throated Just a Gigolo.

Her time with composer Burt Bacharach led her to Vegas , represented here by the drunkard’s lament One For My Baby, where Lemper seems to hang onto the notes in a vain attempt at keeping a grip on reality.

But the central phone conversation is no interview as Marlene says abruptly “ I don’t want to answer questions , I want to talk … about myself. “

The songs are often bitter and sharp – Marlene’s preference was for sad songs – and in Black Market there is a searing level of cynicism in the ruins of post-war Berlin – “ want to buy some illusions – slightly used, almost new ? “ she asks.

And Ute’s great skill is not to impersonate but to inhabit the character – from the bitter Where Have All the Flowers Gone to the deeply emotional Blowin in The Wind. The performer switches effortlessly between 3 women – the 50-something Ute of today, the 20-something aspiring actress and the octogenarian star living in squalor trapped in the prison of her Paris apartment.

There’s much comedy in the night – as when Marlene reels off a list of her lovers – from JFK and his father to Frank Sinatra, Orson Welles and Edith Piaf and Mae West. The only one she admits evaded her clutches was Judy Garland.

But there was only one true love in her life – the French movie star Jean Gabin whom she left but loved for the rest of her life – here brought to musical life in a haunting sometimes semi-whispered version of Ne Me Quitte Pas , which tears at our hearts.

The simple staging is augmented by a few essential props and costumes and it is when Marlene emerges in a glittery golden frock by Dior which she made Hitchcock buy her for the film Stagefright, that she seems to rise and truly glow in her all-important key light on stage.

Ute is every inch the “ new Marlene “ and she brings us a theatrical event that will be talked about for years to come by new generations encountering Dietrich for the first time.

A staggering night of pure-diamond entertainment.

Rendezvous is on tour – see February’s edition of Gscene for Brian Butler’s full-length interview with Ute.

Click here to read the review on GScene

Photo by Lucas Allen

Publication:  Musical Theatre Review
Date: 5 February, 2020
By: Jeremy Chapman

Rendezvous With Marlene: Ute Lemper at the Electric Theatre, Guildford, and on tour until 8 February 2020.

Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

It was quite a coup for the 180-seater Electric Theatre, not even Guildford’s biggest, to host an international superstar of Ute Lemper’s stature and the New York-based German diva did not disappoint on her short, eight-city UK tour.

An Olivier-award winner in 1998 as Best Actress in a Musical for her sensuous Velma Kelly in the London revival of Chicago – a part which she also enjoyed with great success on Broadway – Lemper brought the art of cabaret to a new peak in a tribute show which has been 32 years in the making.

Back in the late 1980s when she was wowing Paris as Sally Bowles in Cabaret and being hailed as ‘La Nouvelle Dietrich!’, a youthful Lemper wrote to the great Marlene, by then an 87-year-old pain-wracked, whisky-drinking recluse, lonely and alone in her Avenue Montaigne apartment, apologising for daring to be named in the same breath as a showbiz icon and saying what an inspiration she had been.

No reply was expected but when she got back from the theatre, a note from Dietrich awaited her which led to the three-hour telephone conversation with the legend that eventually spawned the current show.

They went back and forth in several languages with Dietrich not shy about relating intimate details of her life to a stranger, not least her 500-plus love affairs with both sexes, naming John Wayne, Yul Brynner, Errol Flynn, Ernest Hemingway, Jean Harlow, Edith Piaf and Mae West among the many who had shared her bed.

She had the ear of presidents too, JFK, who apparently was less impressive in the sack than his father Joe, she conversed with Reagan and Soviet supremo Gorbachev.

They spoke of the Hollywood movies that made Dietrich’s reputation, The Blue Angel and Destry Rides Again, and the songs with which she was so closely associated, ‘Falling in Love Again’, ‘Lili Marleen’ and ‘The Boys in the Backroom’.

Inevitably there was Pete Seeger’s anti-war ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’, which Lemper sang in three languages, and ‘Naughty Lola’ for which Lemper blew the trumpet accompaniment vocally.

They spoke of Dietrich’s decision to quit her homeland and work for the US army against the Nazis, of feeding the immigrants in the Hollywood soup kitchens, of entertaining their troops in the trenches – “spending more time on the front lines than Eisenhower” as her movie director pal Billy Wilder put it – and having soldiers  in the boudoir, with a stated preference for generals “because they had softer beds!”

It was Wilder who told her “You don’t have such good legs – it’s just that you know what to do with them!” Not conventionally beautiful, she created an illusion of beauty through her insouciance and glamorous wardrobe.

Often manly in the way she dressed and “a heck of a guy” according to Wilder, she married just the once to Rudolf Sieber – they had a daughter she fell out with – she admitted to only one great love in her life, not Rudy but the great French actor Jean Gabin, who wasn’t “handsome or vain like her Hollywood leading men” but someone she could have a row with, a cigar, a dirty joke and a whisky.

She dumped him when he got serious about marriage – she had a husband and child at the time – and regretted doing so until her dying day.

Hated in wartime by the German people because of her defection to Hollywood, she was  branded a “traitor to the Fatherland” and assailed by placards telling her to “Go Home!”. For many years after the Second World War Dietrich was unwelcome in the country of her birth, but in time they relented and she was buried in her beloved Berlin in 1992.

Lemper told the story exquisitely and sang the songs beautifully, the boisterous ones with punch and flair, the sad ones ‘Lili Marlene’, ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, ‘Just a Gigolo’ and ‘Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind’ bringing a tear or three to the eye.

The Dylan classic ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, a protest song about a different war with that memorable line “How many ears must one person have/before they can hear people cry’” brought the two and a half hour concert to a fitting end.

An extraordinary, unforgettable evening with a sublime artist at the height of her powers and her superb musicians Vana Gierig on piano, Cyril Garac (violin), Romain Lecuyer (bass) and Matthias Daneck (drums).

Rendezvous with Marlene signs off in Edinburgh on Saturday (8 February) before heading to Europe and should on no account be missed.

Click here to read the review online at Musical Theatre Review

Photo: Russ Rowland

Publication : British Theatre Guide
Date: 5 February 2020
By: Martin Thomasson

There is a rather excellent podcast entitled, Something Rhymes with Purple which entertains and informs through etymological dissections of words familiar and unfamiliar. (Excellent, that is provided the mere sound of Gyles Brandreth’s voice doesn’t provoke you to thoughts of murder—for it is he, in tandem with the gifted lexicographer, Susie Dent)

Were Gyles and Susie ever to tackle the word ‘consummate’ in its adjectival form, as in the phrase ‘consummate artist’, they would no doubt tell us that it derives from the Latin roots ‘con’ (meaning ‘altogether’) and ‘summa’ (meaning, in this context, ‘supreme’).

Alternatively, for the several hundred of us packed into the RNCM’s theatre for Rendezvous with Marlene, the true meaning of ‘consummate’ has to be ‘Ute Lemper’.

Developed from an actual 1987 phone conversation between Lemper (then 24 years old) and the aged (but clearly still compos mentis) star of Weimar Germany and Hollywood, Rendezvous with Marlene is two and a half hours of wonder and delight.

Lemper enters in a black gown, split almost to the hip, singing Marlene’s song, “Falling in Love Again” in Marlene’s deep, dulcet tones before shifting multiple gears (and keys) to scat with that precision and vocal range that is her own trademark.

Lemper frames her show with a brief (impressive and amusingly recited) autobiography of her own, before leading us into her “rendezvous” with Marlene.

At the time, the 86-year-old Dietrich was dwelling reclusively in her Parisian apartment, with barely enough cash to keep her beloved Moët & Chandon flowing once a week.

“It prickles,” she tells Lemper, attempting to communicate the enduring sensory delights of drinking champagne.

Lemper had written to Dietrich out of humility, begging her pardon for critical reviews drawing comparisons between the young upstart and the Grande Dame of cabaret and silver screen.

She wasn’t expecting a reply, especially by telephone, and wasn’t quite sure how to handle it. The mere suggestion she might be allowed to ask questions met with a firm rebuke:

““This is not an interview,” snapped Dietrich down the line, “I just want to talk. About myself.”

And talk, she does, with wit and verve and unapologetic frankness.

If I speak as though Dietrich is there on stage tonight, that is because Lemper makes us feel this. Her embodiment of ‘the woman of the future’ (as she calls Dietrich) is so persuasive one feels that to call it acting is almost to undervalue it. Both women are there onstage. (Edith Piaf also makes a brief “appearance”—Lemper’s sorcery here is equally unfussy, equally compelling).

We should take a moment to pay tribute to Lemper’s stamina and powers of concentration. One woman (with a very fine quartet of musicians) holding an audience rapt for two and a half hours, during which she barely falters. (For prospective audience members of lesser stamina, let me reassure you, there is a fifteen minute interval after the opening ninety-minute set).

Of course, a good deal of the captivation is due to the incredible autobiography of Lemper’s subject and her deliciously aphoristic manner of telling it.

“If I had my time again, I would make all the same mistakes only start earlier, so I could enjoy them more.”

The brutal, unflinching honesty (both given and taken):

“Your legs aren’t that good, Marlene. You just know what to do with them,” said her dear friend, Billy Wilder.

The name dropping (hey, if Marlene can’t, who can?!) Gable, Carole Lombard, JFK, George Bernard Shaw, Burt Bacharach, Mae West… and dozens more, many of them (male and female) her lovers.

The demands:

“No Dior, no Marlene.” (This to Alfred Hitchcock: “I got my Dior, he got his Marlene.”)

Even the most prolific of lovers, living the most open of marriages, was always bound to have someone special, the love of her life. For Marlene, this was the great French actor, Jean Gabin—a passionate and turbulent affair.

“Come over,” says Gabin, at one point in Marlene’s account, “I have whisky. We can fight all we want.”

The pain of their break-up (due to his desire to be a father) stays with her. Her rendition of Jacques Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas” is one of the evening’s most beautiful and tender moments.

The rendezvous does not shy away from two other sources of pain in Dietrich’s life. One is her estrangement from her daughter, Maria, whom she had to bribe to postpone publication of a hostile biography until after her death. The other is her fraught relationship with her homeland—so cultured, so monstrous.

The fact that Dietrich’s decision to relocate to Hollywood, take US citizenship and work for the Americans in World War Two was down to her intense hatred of the Nazis was not sufficient excuse for many of her compatriots. Right wing protests and stink bombs accompanied her rare post-war returns to Berlin. Even her funeral (attended by Lemper) had to be low-key.

“My soul belongs to France, my heart to England. Germany can have my dead body.”

The set is simple: downstage left, a single armchair, draped with throws, surrounded with bottles of booze and Lemper’s album (which Dietrich bought). Occasional back projections (mainly of the war and of postwar Berlin in ruins). Other than that, it’s just Ute and her quartet of exceptional musicians—“my boys” as she calls them, with warmth rather than condescension. What a team they are!

Ute Lemper. She acts, she sings, she dances.

Altogether supreme.

Click here to read online at British Theatre Review