Grand Illusions: The Dietrich Songs
By Roy Sander
Though Hall has had an international operatic career as a soprano, her voice has the lush, warm sound of a mezzo; as a result, the evening abounds in vocal color. The show, which was directed by Peter Napolitano, traces Dietrich's career chronologically through perceptive, witty, and beautifully written narration, but the songs are chosen as appropriate to the moment, without regard for date. One of the signal virtues of show is the intelligence and imagination with which the musical selections have been woven into the story. For example, "Das Lied ist aus" (which you may recognize from the lyric "Don't ask me why I'm leaving") was written by Robert Stolz and Walter Reisch in 1930, but Hall positions it to coincide with a pivotal event that occurred later in Dietrich's life, thereby establishing a totally new context for the song; the effect is deeply moving.
I saw Dietrich perform in a nightclub only once. She had the otherworldly aura of a goddess, and though she seemed unapproachable, her presence was so compelling we were all drawn to her. I'm not comparing Hall to Dietrich—for one thing, she's certainly more accessible—but her performance (her singing, her acting choices, her delivery) is impeccably focused and exquisitely centered, so that from beginning to end she, too, commands the audience's attention.
There is a potent emotional dimension to the evening. It's there as an undercurrent, a throughline, and it's evident explicitly in several of the musical numbers, for example in Hall's touching performance of Ralph Maria Siegel and Aldo von Pinelli's "Ich hab' noch einen Koffer in Berlin" (I Always Keep a Suitcase in Berlin) and her poignant handling of "When the World Was Young" (Philippe Bloch, Johnny Mercer). It's also present in the only selection sung n French, Marcel Louiguy and Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose"; her lovely rendition is classic chanteuse.
Despite her classical training, Hall can let loose like someone who's cut her professional teeth in nightclubs. She delivers a perky version of DeSylva, Brown & Henderson's "You're the Cream in My Coffee," an excellent interpretation of Friedrich Hollaender and Frank Loesser's now-classic "The Boys in the Back Room," and Hollaender and Robert Leibmann's lively and risqué "Lola" (from The Blue Angel, of course).
Some of her interpretations achieve a status beyond merely wonderful; they are memorable, unique, standards against which other renditions should be compared. I'll cite two of them: With the cooperation of the instrumental accompaniment and Ted Stafford's lighting, she makes a dramatic choice in the iconic "Lili Marlene" (Norbert Schultze, Hans Leip, Tommie Connor, Jimmy Phillips, and Dietrich) that is shattering. I've never seen anyone else do this; I know I will never forget it. And her rendition of Cole Porter's "The Laziest Gal in Town" is the funniest and at once the most intelligent and the most playful I've ever seen.
Most of the songs are sung in English, and a few in both German and English (Hall supplied some of the English translations). In addition, there's a spirited rarity from 1929, Jean Gilbert and Alfred Schönfeld's "Wie schön du bist, Berlin" (How Beautiful You Are, Berlin), sung only in German.
Trueblood's arrangements don't merely support Hall's interpretations, they mirror and amplify them—for example, the stark instrumental accompaniment to Hall's dramatically strong rendition of Gerard and Hertha Koch's "In den Kasernen" (In the Barracks). Cabaret shows don't always give bass players a chance to stand out, but Henn makes important contributions throughout the evening. For example, accompanied only by Henn on bass, Hall takes Lerner and Loewe's "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" slowly, deliberately, turning it into a simple, earnest, emotionally persuasive statement (another unforgettable interpretation); Henn's accompaniment matches Hall in nuance and sensitivity. Superb collaborative work. He also gets to play the ukulele.
When the show was over, I stayed in my seat a few moments, moved. I realized that I was responding to three forces, all working together: the enduring power of Dietrich, the strength of Hall's performance, and the brilliance of this show and all of its elements. Can one ask more of a tribute?