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Monday, September 17, 2018

What Makes a Legend

MARLENE DIETRICH BECAME A LEGEND long before she died (at 90, in 1992), a legend invented by director Josef von Sternberg, with whom she made seven notable films, and preserved by Dietrich herself during her long career before the public. There was a sure knowledge of craft behind the art: when she filmed “Stage Fright” with Alfred Hitchcock in 1950, he let her light and compose her scenes, which was quite a tribute from the micromanaging director.

Justyna Kostek as Marlene Dietrich
The legend of Dietrich refuses to die, and it is in a post-mortem state that we meet her in the person of Justyna Kostek, who carries us in a matter of minutes from a wheelchair to a lively rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” with the formidable Nevada Lozano at the keyboard.

Kostek wrote the show in collaboration with director Oliver Conant, highlighting Dietrich’s career with a succession of signature songs and just enough narrative to plausibly move us from one to the next. An extended sequence recreates her “screen test” for “The Blue Angel,” the Sternberg film that put her on the map. We have the young Dietrich, nicely impersonated, shrilling her way through “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” as her accompanist veers from what she expects – so she berates him and tries it again. You can find the recently found footage on YouTube, but this version is more fun by virtue of seeming less staged.

And that leads us into her signature song, “Falling in Love Again,” and the years with Sternberg that followed after they both moved to Hollywood. This was when Dietrich became Dietrich, encapsulated in a well-written movie-making sequence that races the actress from one side of the playing space to another, barking orders through a small megaphone. But, as we know, she learned a tremendous amount from the autocratic director.

The playing area is sparsely furnished: dressing table up right, folding screen up center, chaise longue down left. Although Dietrich dominates, there are recorded intrusions by others, Sternberg and Ernest Hemingway among them. Sometimes this is used to cover a costume change, but I would argue that, as we see the actress in her smalls right from the start, those changes (except one) could take place before our eyes without spoiling the magic, and adding propulsion to a script that loses momentum each time Dietrich disappears.

“My country betrayed me,” she tells us before singing “Look Me Over Closely,” which leads us to her stint in the U.S. Army as a USO performer, with the rank of Captain, no less. She was dedicated to the cause of undermining and defeating the Nazis, and her work for the OSS included a famous recording of “Lili Marleen,” which she also performed in post-war concerts, and which Kostek presents excellently here.

“In my heart, I’m always German,” Dietrich confesses, but she dedicated a considerable amount of time and money helping Jewish refugees, which shadowed her post-war reception in her native land. (And which leads to the maudlin “Mother Have You Forgiven Me” – not every song she sang was a gem.)

Marlene reinvented herself as a nightclub performer, with well-paying stints in Las Vegas among her domestic stops. We go a little out of sequence here, as she recreates the “Hot Voodoo” number from the 1932 film “Blonde Venus” (complete with the fascinating costume that was featured in a now-controversial sequence) and sings “The Boys in the Back Room” from 1939's “Destry Rides Again.” Which made me realize that I would have enjoyed less Hemingway and more of the anecdotes with which Dietrich’s autobiography teems.

Kostek has a poised, glamorous presence, and knows her way around a story and a song, and she and Lozano have a polished partnership. But she was hampered by the microphone she sported. A space as small as the black box space in the Troy Arts Center demands no such help. You can hear a whisper in that room, and there were moments of emotional intensity that would benefit from a naked voice.

Although Dietrich boasted of many lovers, her connection with Sternberg was one of the more intense – so the news of his death in 1969 sends her into a collapse. She recovers to sing a passionate “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” which she had added to her repertory soon after Pete Seeger’s song became popular. It’s a moody finish for the show, but it gives us a taste of the later-years Dietrich, before she succumbed to self-caricature.  

It’s a wonderful concept, and a hell of a performance. And I hope it’s on its way to becoming better still, because we need to remember such icons as these.

Dietrich Rides Again
Co-written and performed by Justyna Kostek
Co-written and directed by Oliver Conant
Nevada Lozano, musical director
Troy Arts Center, Sept. 15, 2018

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