It’s rather surprising that, of all the famous singers of the past, the one who gets the most attention in cabaret is Marlene Dietrich. We can readily recall at least three recent acts that were devoted to this icon of sensuality and style, and now comes a fourth: Karen Kohler and her show The Moons of Venus at Judy’s Chelsea.
The irony of so many entertainers doing Dietrich shows is that Marlene was not a big movie star for any great length of time. She was huge in the early-to mid-1930s but turned to box office poison in the later part of that decade until her career was revived in Destry Rides Again (1939) — and that was a Jimmy Stewart movie, not a Dietrich flick. Of course, U.S. soldiers came to love her because of her famous USO tours to the front lines during World War II, but her post-war movie career was spotty and most often consisted of supporting roles. In the 1950s, Dietrich became a chanteuse, appealling to a much narrower audience than Hollywood had once offered. Nonetheless, she remains an icon, and that’s why talented performers like Karen Kohler continue to explore her appeal.
In The Moons of Venus Kohler sings the songs of Dietrich without attempting a dead-on impersonation, and that’s a wise decision. A tall blonde who can (and does) sing in German, Kohler evokes Dietrich without merely aping her. No matter that she’s a soprano and Dietrich had a deep, husky voice; Kohler nonetheless captures the star’s essence, interpreting songs like “The Boys in the Backroom” very much in Dietrich’s unique manner.
This is a traditional, if highly stylized, biographical tribute. One of the ways in which it is different from other cabaret shows about famous people is that the pianist/musical director, Uli Geissendoerfer, has an additional role in the act: He is essentially the narrator, sharing with Kohler the responsibility of imparting the details of Dietrich’s life. This division of labor works well, allowing Kohler the freedom to begin songs in reaction to information; as Geissendoerfer finishes speaking, she’s already posed and ready to begin a tune. This is a far less artificial setup than telling the audience a story about Dietrich and than suddenly singing as her. The only criticism of Geissendoerfer’s narration is his tendency to overemphasize things in his deep, sultry voice; too often, he sounds like he’s doing a midnight radio show instead of a cabaret act. That aside, the facts of Dietrich’s life are presented economically and effectively.
Finally, and most important, Kohler has a lovely voice that is rangy and versatile. Her combination of “Ruins of Berlin” and “Black Market” (both by Friederich Hollaender) is dramatic and moving. Her rendition of “Lili Marleen” (Leip/Schultze) is the emotional highpoint of the evening.
This is a carefully constructed show that finds a very pleasing balance between the famous tunes most associated with Dietrich, such as “Falling in Love Again,” and standards like “Honeysuckle Rose” (Razaf/Waller) that she sang in her Las Vegas act. Kohler’s only major misstep is “Let’s Fall in Love” (Cole Porter) which she and Geissendoerfer perform as an ill-conceived encore; the arrangement is tricky rather than meaningful. Though Dietrich might have sung it in her own nightclub act, this is not the impression one wants to be left with at the end of the evening.
The title of the show, The Moons of Venus, refers to the Dietrich movie Blonde Venus. The “moons” are the talented people who circled around Marlene — from the man who discovered her, director Josef von Sternberg, to her musical director during the 1950s, Burt Bacharach. Karen Kohler has two Dietrich shows left at Judy’s, on August 8 and August 9 at 8:30pm.