Goose Stepping through Song and History
By Isa Goldberg
She was the siren of the Western World and he was her lover. In “Dietrich and Chevalier,” Jerry Mayer’s cabaret style musical, the two strike up a romance from their adjoining dressing rooms on a Paramount lot. The year was 1932. Dietrich was filming “Shanghai Express” while Chevalier was suffering through another childish movie musical. It’s fascinating biography and as told primarily through song, it makes for some endearing moments. Set against the ravages of World War II, it even has the makings of a cathartic love story.
Fortunately, Jodi Stevens sparks Dietrich’s magnetism and sensuality; hers is not a callow impersonation of a Hollywood star. Neither as dark and mysterious nor as edgy and androgynous as Dietrich was in the movies, Stevens morphs into the character with the kind of self-revealing honesty that renders comparisons moot. She also brings a delightful comedic sensibility to the role. Clearly, it wouldn’t serve this story to recreate the haunting, devilish version of “Falling in Love Again” as it was staged in the movie, “Blue Angel.” That scene in a dingy night club in pre-war Germany (1929) is a world away from this romantic Hollywood tale as told on the diminutive stage at St. Luke’s Theatre where Stevens holds her own.
To her credit, her portrayal of Chevalier’s willful mistress (and later, friend) demonstrates the arrogance and independence that characterized that iconic figure. And in focusing on Dietrich’s fervent stand against the Nazis, Stevens’s portrayal is alluring – most of the time. It’s when she butchers the eleventh hour number “Lili Marlene,” the German anti-war song that Dietrich famously sang on tour after tour for American GIs that the play looses critical momentum.
It’s a tough act to sustain as Robert Cuccioli comes across as a deadbeat version of Maurice Chevalier. In the movies, Chevalier had the gift of innocence, making us feel as though he fell into situations by accident and not (no never) because he’s an actor. Cuccioli, on the other hand, puts so much affect (and so little substance) into the role that we are constantly aware of him. It’s an artless imitation that leads to a surly version of a vaudevillian. Angry and jealous at Dietrich’s rejection, this Chevalier rarely reflects the kind of levity that glimmers in his movies.
To keep the story moving, Donald Corren takes on an endless parade of characters. Culling their essential traits with aplomb, he portrays Dietrich’s devoted husband Rudi, a German Jewish piano player (Dietrich rescued him from Germany by hocking an emerald ring gifted her by Chevalier), a butcher turned Nazi informer, a Hollywood movie producer (none other than Irving Thalberg), and finally the Parisian judge who challenges Chevalier for his supposed collaboration with the Nazis.
This, unfortunately, brings us to the story’s awkward climax at which point the cabaret style musical turns from frothy wartime romance to a travesty of courtroom drama. The change in tone is jarring. To make matters worse, Dietrich arrives dues ex machina in her army khakis to protect her unfairly accused ex-lover. Obviously it’s a testament to their endearing romance, but as played it looks and feels ridiculous.
Still, the idea behind it – the portrait of Maurice Chevalier, who played such frivolous roles in the movies as a serious and misunderstood man has the makings for dramatic tension as does, of course, Dietrich’s love affair with America. The latter, while widely known, clearly fares better in this musical soiree.
“Dietrich and Chevalier: The Musical”
The St. Luke’s Theatre
308 West 46th Street
Performances are Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 pm and Sundays at 2pm & 7pm.
Tickets from $36.50 are available through Telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200.
For more information, visit DietrichAndChevalierthemusical.com.