The new musical Lili Marlene owes so much to the old musical Cabaret that its producers should be paying royalties. It’s set in Berlin only two year later than Cabaret. Its songs are sometimes sung on the cabaret stage as part of an act. The singer has a romance with an aristocrat, as in Cabaret the movie. There’s a Christian-Jewish romance, and there's a gay element in the script.
The show is produced by Tamra Pica and Write Act Repertory at St Luke's Theatre. Its book, music and lyrics have been written by Michael Antin. They’re all unremarkable. There’s no important conflict in the plot and the melodies are unmemorable. The lyrics vary in quality, sometimes interesting, sometimes cliched.
There’s a single moment of surprise in this play - and it’s an excellent one - when a song is interrupted. But the territory has been well covered, and Lili Marlene has hardly a single original idea.
The action is set immediately before and after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933. The story concerns a cabaret singer named Rosie. She was mentored by Marlene Dietrich, and she keeps her promise to that star by singing the song Lili Marlene at every performance.
Rosie is courted by a Count, Willi, and he introduces her to his sister and her family. They’re mildly disrespectful to Rosie because she’s Jewish, but their objections don’t create much drama. Willi’s nephew campaigns against the Nazis. Rosie refuses Willi’s offers of marriage. There’s also an undeveloped subplot involving Rosie and Renate, the cabaret’s lesbian compere.
Mark Blowers has directed so as to rob the narrative scenes of all dramatic tension. Actors face front even in intimate scenes. They often don’t use contractions, even in intimate scenes, although they’re inconsistent - sometimes they do use contractions. Nothing robs a scene of privacy more than not contracting words. And often the actors over-articulate, aspirating plosives, unlike real people.
Fortunately, a cabaret can hardly fail to entertain, and the play’s best moments occur on the cabaret stage, when we don’t expect much more than entertainment. Mr. Blowers work is more sure here. The group songs are fun, and we get a terrific compere. There’s also a great comedy duo who make anti-Nazi jokes.
The cast, who are very talented, do the the best they can under these circumstances. Amy Londyn can’t be faulted as a singer, but her church choir voice doesn’t carry the leading role. Moreover, she plays Rosie as a hopelessly nice Nice Girl, without depth. She’s right to avoid cliche, but she doesn’t reflect the counter-culture that made up the Weimar Republic’s cabaret society.
Clint Hromsco plays Willi, the Count, Rosies’s suitor, smartly, making much of a lackluster role. He’s sings very well, but he’s too respectful of the mediocre songs he’s been given. He should take more liberties in phrasing.
The great strong point of the show is Rachel Leighson’s performance as Renate, the cabaret hostess. Not only does she have a great voice, she also has a commanding stage presence. She masters the stage from the very opening, when she reminds us, her cabaret audience, not to click our ball-points.
There’s an interesting detail in the very minor character of the Count’s secretary, a man who moves militarily, in straight lines with right angles. The director has discovered an opportunity to express the military strain of German culture and, knowing the period, we find it ominous.
Granted, there are some interesting moments in the book, as when Rosie tells the Count “It’s true I could never marry you in Germany, but I’m an entertainer. Living in sin is practically expected.” If only the show were as good as its best moments!