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Review: Ute Lemper at the Café Carlyle

by Photo of Paul Hansen

The singer returns to the Carlyle with a tribute to Marlene Dietrich

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Although it is a word that is often overused,  I think that it is safe to say that Marlene Dietrich was an iconic figure of the twentieth century.  It is not for nothing that she is mentioned in Madonna's iconic (there is that word again) song “Vogue.”  Born in Berlin in 1901 and passing away in 1992 at the age of 90, Dietrich's very presence radiated urbanity and sophistication. 

The acclaimed singer and actress Ute Lemper opened a new engagement at the Café Carlyle this past Tuesday in a tribute to Dietrich entitled Rendezvous with Marlene.   Lemper had some contact with Dietrich in the late 1980's which included correspondence and a three hour telephone conversation. (Like Greta Garbo,  Dietrich was  reclusive in the last years of  her life,  largely interacting with the world through letters and lengthy phone conversations).   It was entirely appropriate that Lemper would devote a whole evening to Dietrich at the Carlyle as Dietrich rose to fame in the celebrated 1930 German film Blue Angel in which she played a cabaret singer. 

Lemper's show covered many of the bases of Dietrich's career,  from her emergence as a star in her late twenties in Germany, to emigrating to Hollywood in the early 1930's.   Being cosmopolitan and urbane doesn't necessarily mean that a person has a strong moral core.  Lemper's account of Dietrich's heroic actions both before and during World War 2 removed any doubt about the strength and surety of Marlene's convictions.  She was instrumental in raising significant funds in Hollywood to aid refugees from Nazi Germany.  During the course of the war she often entertained and accompanied U.S. troops to the front line of the conflict at considerable personal risk.  The significance of her contributions to the war effort can be measured by the fact that Dietrich was awarded both the U.S. Medal of Freedom and the French Legion d'honneur.

While watching the performance I had the same reaction that I had to John Lloyd Young's show at the Carlyle several weeks ago in that I wish both events had been recorded.  After an opening musical segment,  Lemper gave a touching and eloquent tribute to Dietrich that was far more incisive and expressive than my fragmentary notes record.  Lemper referred to Dietrich as “an incredibly progressive woman when women were not supposed to have the last word.”  She was an entertainer at home in smoky cabarets who could also quote Rilke.

Reflective of Dietrich's own musical tastes,  the set list for the evening was incredibly eclectic featuring selections from Harold Arlen, Jacques Brel, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter to such folk figures as Bob Dylan ("Blowin' in the Wind")  and Pete Seeger (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”).   Lemper bears a certain resemblance to Dietrich,  and was able to successfully channel her through much of the evening.  Also like Dietrich,  Lemper gives the impression of someone who knows her mind.  Ute's lovely, svelte, occasionally purring voice was accompanied by a lyrical three piece band – Vana Gierig on piano,  Romain Lecuyer (bass),  and Cyril Garac (violin).  As mentioned in the show,  it is worth noting that Burt Bacharach was for a time Dietrich's music director.   

Lemper has had considerable success on the stage,  playing Sally Bowles in the original production of Cabaret in Paris and Velma Kelly in a revival of Chicago in both New York and London. The engagement in the English capitol resulted in her winning an Olivier Award.  She is also noted for her interpretations of Kurt Weill's songs and was voted a Billboard's Crossover Artist of the Year in the mid-1990s.             

Upcoming performers at the Carlyle include Bernie Williams who will be making his Carlyle debut from March 6-10.  He has certainly had an interesting career.  In addition to being a New York Yankees World Series Champ, he is also a Grammy nominated jazz musician.   Tony Award winner Lena Hall will be returning to the Carlyle March 13-17 with a show entitled The Art of the Audition: From Falling Apart to Nailing the Part.  Based on a performance I saw her give at the Carlyle almost two years ago it should be a lively, entertaining evening. 

And Woody Allen plays his clarinet every Monday evening through June 11 with the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band.

Ute Lemper will be appearing at the Carlyle through this Saturday, March 3. Dietrich was one of those rare individuals where a glistening image merged with serious substance and talent, and Lemper's performance is a vibrant and memorable tribute to this distinctive figure.

The Café Carlyle is located at 35 East 76th St. in Manhattan.

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