Publication: The American
Reviewed by Jarlath O’Connell
Published on May 16, 2019
Ute Lemper, who has headlined the great theatres of Berlin, Vienna and Paris amongst others has finally made it to Dalston. In a coup, this intimate theatre, located in London’s hipsterville, has wooed the great German chanteuse to present the first UK performances of this new and very personal homage to her fellow country-woman Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992).
It is based on a 3-hour phone call Lemper had with Dietrich in 1988. After receiving the French Molière award for her role in Cabaret in Paris, Lemper had sent a postcard to Marlene, essentially apologizing for all the media attention drawing comparisons between them. Ute, at 24, was just setting out whilst Marlene, then 87, was looking back on a career which defines the term legend. By then she was a recluse, holed up in the Avenue de Montaigne, with the telephone being her only connection to the world.
Lemper has form of course in performing Dietrich’s songs, has recorded the works of Weill and Hollaender, and is the pre-eminent interpreter of these great Weimar composers.
Lemper never tries mere impersonation, she’s too good for that. She is always totally herself but of course she has the look and the attitude right down. She has also gathered round her a quartet of great musicians led by Vana Gierig on piano. They add a joyous country twang to ‘The Boys in the Backroom’, and ‘One for My Baby’ while ‘When the World Was Young’ are re-invented afresh in lush, beautifully textured arrangements.
Between the songs (and they’re all there) Lemper goes into some detail about Dietrich’s politics and life story. Being rejected when she first returned to Germany in 1960 cut her deeply. After that she said she’d return only in a coffin. When this did happen, in 1992, the contemporary neo-Nazis left off stink bombs at the graveyard and other civic memorials, sadly, had to be curtailed. It wasn’t really until her centenary in 2001 that she finally was given the respect she was due in her home country.
By the late ‘60s she was touring the world with Burt Bacharach and she even rode the Flower Power boom which Lemper illustrates with salty bilingual versions of Seeger’s ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ and Dylan’s ‘Blowinin the Wind’. Considering her first breakthrough in The Blue Angel was in 1930 this was quite a career arc.
Lemper reminds us too what a ground breaking figure Dietrich was. She had an open marriage, was openly bisexual and had affairs with all her leading men – plus a few female co-stars – as well as practically all the leading cultural and literary figures of her era. As a style icon she smashed all conventions, devising a fantastic androgynous look supported by exquisite tailoring. She understood branding before the word was invented and Billy Wilder claimed she knew more about lighting than any cinematographer. Highly educated and intensely articulate she knew what she wanted and she got it.
Her often bohemian lifestyle had a curious counterpoint though, in that she had a streak of Prussian discipline running through her. She also loved to cook and clean and mother people, which she did with Piaf for example, but she soon came to realise that Piaf couldn’t be saved from herself.
Lemper’s slow rendition of ‘Ne me quitte pas’ is particularly heart breaking when she puts it in the context Marlene’s great lost love – the French movie star Jean Gabin. How, despite all the lovers, she held a candle for him right to her dying day is a touching reminder of her softer side.
Lemper’s show is a feast for the fans and a brilliant introduction for those who might not know her. Like a fine wine Lemper improves with age and has grown into this material. This, no doubt, will travel far and wide and should not be missed.
Let Jean Cocteau have the final word: “Ah, Marlene Dietrich, a name that starts like a kiss and ends like a whip”.
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