Dietrich Rides Again

September 15, 2017 | By | Add a Comment

I can’t help it. I had planned on falling in love with Marlene all over again when I went to see Dietrich Rides Again. But, alas, it didn’t happen. I had seen the legendary star almost fifty years before, on what we all believed was to be her farewell tour. (She was to do several more.) Throughout that 90-minute set, Dietrich’s German-accented, gravelly voice was as unmistakable, and alluring, as ever. At age 67, she stood ramrod-straight throughout the show. Every sequin on her long lilac-purple dress (with generous slits to show off her still-admirable legs) was in place, and her stage movements were as calculated as they were captivating. Her riveting chat was completely autobiographical and chronological. Much of it was even true. I remember it all as if it had been the week before last. At the same time, I realize that I am among a rapidly dwindling population who could have seen Dietrich in live cabaret, even as children. (She did do the show for BBC-TV.) It is certainly fitting to introduce her to subsequent generations, especially as she was in her 30-year live performance career, post-movie stardom.

Polish-born actress Justyan Kostek and director Oliver Conant have co-authored the latest attempt to do this, Dietrich Rides Again, and are presenting it in a world premiere run at the Medicine Show Theatre. Taking its title, of course, from one of Marlene’s more memorable movies, Destry Rides Again, this show is part tribute, part documentary, and part introducing Kostek to a new audience. And that tri-part approach is a big part of the problem. Beyond that, Kostek, at age 24, born after Dietrich’s death, is just too young to do much with most of this material. She can handle a quick look at Marlene’s youthful violin playing (a hand injury ended that original attempt at entertainment) or her first cabaret audition at age 19, but both of those scenes needn’t be in the presentation at all, and would be better dealt with as spoken vignettes recalled from a later age. Kostek also doesn’t sing or speak much like Dietrich. At times, a platinum blonde wig that never ages makes her look more like Harpo Marx.

She does perform Marlene Dietrich’s greatest hits: “Lili Marlene” (Norbert Schultze, Hans Leip, Tommie Connor, Jimmy Phillips, and Dietrich), “Falling in Love Again” (Friedrich Hollaender, English lyric by Sammy Lerner), “See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have” (Hollaender, Frank Loesser), “The Laziest Gal in Town” (Cole Porter), and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (Pete Seeger). But the connective verbiage doesn’t always track, and we in the audience are never quite sure when and whether Kostek is talking to the audience as herself or as Dietrich. A decision should have been made either to be Marlene Dietrich throughout the show and never break character (as recent shows on Sophie Tucker and Mabel Mercer have done, for example) or to simply be Justyn Kostek reintroducing the importance of Marlene Dietrich, and perhaps talking of any influence she’s had on Kostek personally.

Dietrich died at 90, having lived a colorful, eventful life, well documented in books by her and her daughter, Maria Riva, and a host of other biographers. But not enough of Marlene’s life comes to life here. There are hints of possibility, as when Dietrich returns to perform in Germany after the Allied Victory in World War II, to be greeted with (offstage recorded ) brickbats such as “Traitoress” and “Jew Lover,” and you can see signs of her inner conflict between her love of her homeland and that of her adopted United States in Kostek’s eyes. Many more of these moments would be welcome, along with a fuller account of Dietrich’s love life. We hear more than once that she had many lovers of both sexes, and many of them were famous, but only Ernest Hemingway among them is given airtime, via recorded voiceovers. And where are any film clips or projected still photographs that might have helped that narrative flow? They are only out in the lobby, where patrons can peruse them during an ill-considered intermission only 30 minutes into the show. There is no need for an intermission, as the many costume changes are made onstage with the aid of a screen, and set changes are minimal and just as easy. I feel sure that Marlene Dietrich herself would never have countenanced such a flow-breaking interval.

Musical director and accompanist Jono Mainelli is a definite plus in the proceedings, with his solid piano playing (on two pianos) and evocative arrangements. The many versatile, quick-change period costumes of Derek Nye Lockwood are also standouts.

Medicine Show Theatre – August 31 – September 17

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Robert Windeler is the author of 17 books, including biographies of Mary Pickford, Julie Andrews, Shirley Temple, and Burt Lancaster. As a West Coast correspondent for The New York Times and Time magazine, he covered movies, television and music, and he was an arts and entertainment critic for National Public Radio. He has contributed to a variety of other publications, including TV Guide, Architectural Digest, The Sondheim Review, and People, for which he wrote 35 cover stories. He is a graduate of Duke University in English literature and holds a masters in journalism from Columbia, where he studied critical writing with Judith Crist. He has been a theatre critic for Back Stage since 1999, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and is a member of The Players and the American Theatre Critics Association.

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