Tilted Productions’ Love for Sale—a “cabaret play” directed by Robert F. Gross—features international songs from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, many of them titles from the Kurt Weill catalogue. Kelly Burke portrays an unnamed American chanteuse—a struggling but spirited character with a penchant for self-dramatization—who undoubtedly will bring the name Sally Bowles (or, at any rate, Liza Minnelli’s Yankee incarnation of Bowles from the 1972 film Cabaret) to the minds of many audience members. This character shares the stage with an unnamed pianist (Charlie Alterman), who speaks little but who patiently accompanies the singer as she performs her songs. He also provides underscoring for her as she talks with the audience, sometimes moving about the room of the Huron Club, interacting with customers.
Love for Sale‘s scenario isn’t much of a story, but it’s a familiar one. You can sum it up in a lyric Burke sings from “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (Al Dubin, Harry Warren): “I left my soul behind me.”
No one is credited in the program for the libretto, which is loosely fashioned and occasionally a bit improvisatory. In the first act, we are in a Parisian cabaret, in which Burke’s character sings and chats about her life. This resolutely perky, over-eager character is committed to doing “what a girl’s gotta do” to keep from starving, but as her performance proceeds, she describes some very dark days. In the second act we see the same woman a few years later, apparently in a waterfront dive in or near Mandalay during World War II. Here Burke is almost a comedic parody of a cynical woman of the world. She wears a shiny black wig and a slinky black shoulder-baring gown. She drinks profusely, sneers at the customers, and at one point, shrieks at the pianist when he tries to console her.
Burke’s performance is arch and theatrical. To an extent, this is appropriate, because her character is highly prone to artificiality and exhibitionism. But there doesn’t seem to be much nuance flickering beneath all the flamboyance. Sometimes we do glimpse the character’s inner life in the quieter songs in Act One, such as Weill and Ogden Nash’s “Speak Low” and Friedrich Hollaender’s “A Little Yearning.” But in Act Two—wearing her vamp’s getup like armor—the character is frantic, bitter, and on edge throughout.
As a singer, Burke has a pleasingly polished affect. She certainly has a versatile vocal palette to work with. There is a woodwind-like quality about her voice that works well for the younger version of the character. A “legit” operetta-ish sound breaks loose frequently, providing additional color. And sometimes Burke speaks rather than sings certain words of a song, to good effect. Her enunciation is precise—every word is crisp and clear. (With the notable exception of Weill and Maurice Magre’s French “Je ne t’aime pas,” the songs are delivered in English.)
In Act One, Alterman’s voice is all but silent. But in the second half, he speaks a bit and performs a welcome duet with Burke: “Ballad of the Easy Life” (Weill, Brecht). I’m not sure why the librettist and director chose not to bring Alterman’s character into the spotlight more often—Burke’s character would be better defined if more time were spent with her playing off him. Maybe the two characters are meant to be a cabaret “Everyman” and “Everywoman,” but it would have been a good idea to at least have given them first names.
Gross’s directorial skills are especially evident in the finale to Act One, when Burke’s character performs Weill and Brecht’s “Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife” as a nonchalant striptease and segues into Weill and Paul Green’s “Mon Ami, My Friend,” during which she makes a widow’s veil materialize in unusual fashion. As for Burke’s interactions with particular audience members, they should probably be scaled back. Appropriating people’s personal belongings or asking questions—only to interrupt before getting an answer—creates considerable unease, as listeners are obviously apprehensive about becoming the next victim. This kind of provocation can be effective sometimes, but a little of it goes a long way.
All things considered, this show is a partial success. When a production is billed as a “cabaret play,” it needs to have both engaging entertainment value and a solid dramatic structure with effective development. Love for Sale succeeds on the first count; on the second, it could benefit from some additional work.
Huron Club at Soho Playhouse – January 10 – February 19