Now in its American premiere after performing in London and Edinburgh, Love for Sale takes us to Paris, 1934, for a “cabaret-play” woven around the music of Kurt Weill and contemporary songwriters from the era of World War and Depression. Written and performed by Kelly Burke, and presented by Tilted Productions, the show tells the story of an aspiring American songstress who leaves the US for Europe in a futile search for love, fame, and fortune, only to find hardship, desperation, decadence, and destruction.
With a total of 25 numbers and reprises, including such classics by Weill and Bertolt Brecht as “Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife” and “Alabama Song” (aka “Whisky Bar”) and the titular “Love for Sale” by Cole Porter, the thin two-act narrative that strings them together seems little more than an elongated cliché and the female protagonist a superficial stereotype, which pale in comparison with the poignant darkness of the originals. Burke’s performance, under the direction of Robert F. Gross, lacks the emotional, psychological, and vocal depth needed to set the tragic mood of heartrending sadness that underlies the louche façade. There are too many smiles, too much mugging (often calling to mind Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond), and too shrill high soprano notes, in lieu of an authentic connection to the sardonic lyrics and the people of the time who truly suffered.
Presented in the apropos space of a real underground nightclub, Burke moves back and forth from the cabaret stage to the actual bar, telling in English and “appalling French” her character’s familiar backstory between songs, engaging in uncomfortable forced interactions with the audience, and exchanging minor bits of repartee with Music Director Charlie Alterman, who accompanies her on piano and serves as her character’s “man with the magic fingers.” His spirited playing brings some excitement and energy to the musical stylings—the two highlights of the show are his expressive piano solo on “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, and their duet on the cynical Weill/Brecht collaboration “Ballad of the Easy Life”–though his everyday clothes and current look remove him visually from the historical timeframe in which the story is set. Her costumes display the change in her character’s situation from the first act to the second, and better evoke the period fashions.
Lighting is also uneven. When Burke is spotlighted during her appearances in the darkened space of the audience, the exquisite chiaroscuro contrasts set a tenebrous tone in keeping with the murky mood of Weill, whose songs dominate. But when she is on stage singing, the overly bright lights destroy the reality of a site-specific performance in a ‘nightclub’ (emphasis on ‘night’). The sound design is clear and audible throughout, from the songs, to the piano, to the dialogue, but overall could benefit from toning down the vocals with renditions that are less loudly belted out and operatic, and more smoky and introspective.
If you’re an aficionado of the music of the time, Love for Sale offers an extensive song list that will attract you to a performance at the Huron Club in SoHo Playhouse, a popular meeting place and nightclub since the turn of the 20th century. But you might leave wishing that the show had been as genuine as the venue.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.