The blonde bombshell Ute Lemper took the stage of 54 Below on Wednesday night and instantly we were transported to the pre-war cabarets of Berlin and France and the milongas of Argentina. Last Tango in Berlin, her new show at the Broadway nightspot, highlights these locales through quiet storytelling and the shimmering music of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, Jacques Brel, Leo Ferre, and others.
Joined by the impressive Vana Gierig on piano and Tito Castro on bandoneon, Lemper takes us through the hits of Dietrich and Piaf, opening with a “Falling in Love” that makes the audience do just that; along with the rousing “Milord,” which nearly led into a clap-along. Lemper sings tango songs exceedingly well, too. But it’s the Brecht and Weill where her heart and soul lies.
There aren’t many Brecht and Weill songs on the bill; only the “Tango Ballade” and “Moritat von Mecky Messer” of Threepenny Opera and “Bilbao Song” from Happy End, but these tunes are performed with an unparalleled passion, the kind you only see in foremost interpreters of work. You need not understand English to gather the emotions put forth in the German lyrics; Lemper knows how to act these songs in ways to get the audience to understand. “Bilbao Song” is a particular highlight, turning what could be a rousing drinking song into a quiet, contemplative ballad about time passing us by.
Die Moritat, which closes the show, also proves a highlight, with Lemper scatting her way through the opening song of Threepenny (best known to American audiences as “Mack the Knife”), then segueing into the title number from Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, followed by Brecht and Weill’s Alabama Song, and finally “All That Jazz” from Chicago. These songs don’t sound at all like we’d expect them to; “Cabaret” is basically turned into spoken-word poetry. It’s a stunning medley — one that will stick in the mind of this Berlin dreamer for years to come.