By James Bartholomew
On May 7th, 1990, the front page of the New York Post read: “So Long, Angel! Marlene Dietrich is dead at 90.” Twenty-eight years later, she wants a word with the editor. “Angel? How dare they call me an angel!” shouts Dietrich, holding up the newspaper. “What?” she asks her audience coyly. “You’ve never seen a star reading her obituary?”
The legendary “angel” is played here by Justyna Kostek, who, together with director and co-writer Oliver Conant, crafted in “Dietrich Rides Again” a fun romp through the life and career of stage and film icon Marlene Dietrich. The show opens with Dietrich reading announcements of her death as if they were reviews of her latest performance. And as she rises from her chair and regales the audience with her life story, it becomes clear that to Dietrich, everything is a performance.
The play settles into an enjoyable, albeit slightly repetitive pattern: Dietrich treats the audience to a song from her extensive repertoire, then provides context for the tune with tales from her past. Many of her greatest hits are here: “Lili Marleen,” “Falling in Love Again” and “You Do Something to Me,” each accompanied by memories of Dietrich’s years in the German cabaret, her early success as a cross-continental sensation, and her USO performances during World War II, among many others. The songs and stories flow seamlessly in and out of each other, and collectively create a biography as smooth and stylish as Marlene herself.
The music is directed and arranged by Nevada Lozano, who gracefully condenses the sweeping string sections that so often accompany Dietrich’s songs down to a single piano arrangement without losing any of that 30s glamour. Kostek shows impressive range in her vocal performances. Early on, she launches into “You’re the Cream in My Coffee,” a hilarious riff on the high pitched Americana vibrato that made the careers of acts like the Boswell Sisters and Ruth Etting in the early 30s. Seconds later, she drops the tempo and ups the swing for a true Dietrich-style cover of the same tune, this time in a seductively low-toned style that reminds you why Marlene became a household name. But if there’s a weakness in Kostek’s singing, it’s that those low notes, perfectly pitched though they are, feel a touch more labored than her real-life counterpart’s. Listening to Marlene Dietrich sing, you can close your eyes and smell the tobacco from her smoky, coquettish contralto, an essential facet of the singer’s style that’s simply missing in “Dietrich Rides Again.”
In between songs, Kostek can capture the stage legend with near-perfect accuracy. She glides around the theatre with a sinful smirk, winking at the front row as she alludes to some scandalous love affair from her youth. Underneath her flirts and wry grins, Kostek brings a nuanced sense of progression to Dietrich as she charms her way through the famed actress’s life story. Kostek’s Dietrich has a girlish giddiness when she lands her first role in the cabaret that slowly fades into a seen-it-all smile by the time she begins her landmark tours around the world.
All of that culminates in a stirring and somber rendition of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” as Dietrich mourns the loss of her mentor and first film director, Josef Von Sternberg. In this final song, Dietrich’s amorous siren’s song is replaced with a sorrowful, impassioned plea for answers in the face of her beloved teacher’s death. In that moment, Dietrich isn’t singing to perform; she’s singing in a desperate struggle to make sense of the crumbling world around her and to grapple with the burgeoning emotions she had been told her whole life to control. It’s a poetic turn for a show that mostly stays light on the drama, but a welcome one nonetheless.
But while the raw emotion of Kostek’s performance is powerful, the ending doesn’t feel like a true conclusion. With its titular character on the verge of tears in her last song, “Dietrich Rides Again” comes close to a truly memorable moment. Unfortunately, much of the beauty of those final minutes is more sub-textual than textual, a lovely theme introduced too late and never given the time it deserved to blossom.
It’s a problem that extends to the entire play. The songs and stories of “Dietrich Rides Again” form a cohesive summary of the iconic performer’s career, but beyond the glitz and glamour, there’s little in the way of substance to the work overall. By the time the lights fall on Marlene for the last time, it doesn’t feel as though anything meaningful has been added to her story as we know it. Kostek has a talent that transcends simple impression – she’s the splitting image of one of Hollywood’s greats, and carries herself just like the legend herself. And while there are some hints at complexities below the surface, they’re mostly ignored as the show goes on.
Perhaps an extra song or some mention of the two decades between Sternberg’s death in ’69 and Dietrich’s passing in ’90 would have given the piece more time to find its footing. By all accounts, Dietrich’s relationship to her daughter Maria was hardly stable, yet the play makes no mention of the child at all. As is, “Dietrich Rides Again” is a pleasant homage to one of the world’s brightest stars. Kostek’s performance, vocal or otherwise, is joyfully reminiscent of Dietrich herself and a true delight to experience. And while that all leads to some perfectly passable theatergoing, it makes for a middling return for Berlin’s blue angel.
“Dietrich Rides Again”
Written and Performed by Justyna Kostek
Sept. 24 at 7:30pm
Playwright & Director: Oliver Conant
Music Director: Nevada Lozano
Choreographer: Madeline Jaye
Lighting Design: Alex Moore
Photo: courtesy of the production
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.