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