Taking its name from the romantic wartime ballad famously recorded by Marlene Dietrich in 1945, and which, in its earlier German and English versions, had become uniquely popular with both Nazi and Allied troops during World War II, Lili Marlene, with book, lyrics, and music by Michael Antin, makes its East Coast Off-Broadway debut at St. Luke’s Theatre following its Spring premiere in Los Angeles. Using the familiar song as the centerpiece of the story, the original musical, presented by John Lant (Producing Artistic Director of Write Act Repertory), recounts the rise of Nazism at the end of the Weimar Republic (1932-33), as seen through the lens of a cabaret singer and her love in Berlin. Sound familiar? While the show mirrors the era, setting, and basic plot points of Cabaret, it varies in some of the details, and generally lacks the authenticity, credibility, and emotional intensity of the Broadway classic.
Here the star of the local cabaret is Rosie Penn, a German-Jewish orphan saved by Dietrich herself, asking only in return that the girl, whose singing she encouraged, should always perform the eponymous song – a glaring anachronism in a story set in the early 1930s. Though originally created as a poem in 1915, by German writer Hans Leip during his service in World War I, the verses were not expanded or published until 1937, before being set to music by Norbert Schultze in 1938, recorded and popularized by Lale Andersen in 1939, and then becoming one of Dietrich’s signature songs, under its current title, in the following decade. Nonetheless, it plays a key role in the fictionalized historical narrative and figures prominently in the story’s conclusion.
At the nightclub, Rosie catches the eye of Willi, a Count and head of the country’s Passport Bureau, who falls in love with her and takes her to meet his aristocratic family. They, along with the cabaret’s emcee, all soon come to realize the dangers of the socio-political situation and commit to a course of action, actively protesting the tide of Nazism, discreetly helping others to leave the country before it’s too late, and making plans for their own escape, after Willi’s nephew and niece become victims of Nazi atrocities.
The serious subject and haunting titular song should provide the bases for a compelling show. But they are undermined by predictable dialogue, trite sing-songy rhymes and rhythms (musical direction and arrangements by Rocco Vitacco and keyboard accompaniment by Anessa Marie), and groan-inducing attempts at humor, including jokes about the Nazis that only work in English, not in the characters’ native German (e.g., “What do you call a blind German? A not see”), all of which serve to trivialize the gravity of the horrific historical events. Directed and choreographed by Mark Blowers, the delivery is slow and stilted and the dance numbers unimaginative, falling short of the implicit moods of sexual seductiveness in “Take Me Home Tonight” and drunken revelry in “Fill My Stein with Beer” (which oddly synthesize the cabaret with a beer hall).
Matt Mitchell is a standout in the cast as Willi’s nephew Josef, capturing the passion of the outspoken young dissident, who sings that it’s “Time To Stand Up” and then pays the ultimate price for his political activism. In the leads, both Amy Londyn as Rosie and Clint Hromsco as Willi bring their fine rich voices to the musical numbers (her pure clear renditions of “Lili Marlene” are profoundly affecting), but they display little chemistry as a couple or any real connection to the characters’ emotions.
Adrianna Covone’s costumes mix period-style suits and Nazi uniforms with cocktail dresses that have a more current look, and the set design of faux-brick panels, movable tables and chairs, and a projection-screen backdrop is also inconsistent in its evocation of an apropos era. During the performance I attended, there were issues with lighting cues (lighting by Maarten Cornelis), which distracted from the scene.
The theme of Lili Marlene is momentous, but the uneven quality of the present Off-Broadway production fails to live up to the significance of the story and the impact it could and should have.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including a 10-minute intermission.