Theater News

James Beaman Does Marlene Dietrich

JAMES BEAMAN, who’s uncannily channeling Marlene Dietrich at the FireBird Café, talks with David Hurst about the skill behind the illusion.

Beaman as Dietrich--believe it or not!
Beaman as Dietrich–
believe it or not!

James Beaman is known to New York audiences for his work in Whoop-Dee-Doo, When Pigs Fly, the La Cage Revue at the Blue Angel Supper Club, and first New York revival of Charles Busch’s Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. But his greatest success has come as a drag performer–or, if you prefer, “gender illusionist.” This three-time MAC Award nominee in the Outstanding Characterization/Impersonation category recently took his Marlene Dietrich to Berlin for four weeks, allowing the Germans to fall in love with the lady all over again. I caught up with James following the opening of his new show Marlene! Alive at the Café de Paris at the FireBird Café. TheaterMania wanted to know where Marlene has been, where she is now, and where she’s going.


TM: Can you tell us how this show came to be booked at the FireBird? It’s a big step up for performers who do what you do.

BEAMAN: It’s really an extension of my relationship with Erv Raible, the entertainment director there. Erv approached me a few years ago about putting together a Marlene show for Eighty Eight’s which I did last year along with Black Market Marlene. It was created for that room; then it took off, and I’ve been doing it for a little over a year. When Eighty Eight’s closed and Erv went to the FireBird, I was in the middle of conceiving a new show and he sort of grabbed me and said, “Do it here.” Yes, it’s unusual fare for the FireBird, but it’s really not so unusual to have a female impersonator in a high-end club; it’s just been out of fashion for a while. In the ’60s and ’70s, it was very common to see someone like Jim Bailey or T.C. Jones or Charles Pierce in a high-end room.

TM: Many of us don’t consider you “female impersonators.” We see you as actors who are tackling difficult roles.

BEAMAN: Well, I don’t usually refer to myself as a female impersonator–but I find that people feel you’re getting defensive if you call yourself an actor! And I’m not defensive at all. I put every bit as much preparation and technique into these shows as any other show. There’s always a heavy responsibility when you take on the role of a famous person. And when you’re crossing the gender line, you have to be all the more accurate and very, very creative in what you do. I was drawn to Marlene mainly because I wanted to see if it was possible to do a cross-gender character and have it not be a campy commentary. There’s nothing wrong with that and, in fact, my Lauren Bacall–while it’s a fleshed-out character–is more tongue-in-cheek.

TM: How did you decide to recreate Marlene’s opening at the Café de Paris in London on June 21, 1954?

BEAMAN: Well, I’ve always wanted to do a full-length piece on Marlene because I felt I had tapped into several different aspects of her persona that I had never seen accurately represented before–one of which was her humor! Most people think of Marlene as an ice-goddess, and I think that’s a mistake. I don’t think that comes from her film career, because she played a lot of saloon gals and women who were very flirtatious and effervescent. She was very animated. Marlene just sort of radiated confidence and sensuality. The Café de Paris idea came about because as I was creating Black Market Marlene–which is an hommage to her in her male drag outfit of tuxedo and top-hat–I knew that, if I did a second piece, it would have to be as a completely feminine Marlene. And since Sian Phillips came into town with Pam Gems’ play and did her as a much older diva, I thought it would be interesting to show Marlene at the beginning of her cabaret career in the 1950s. She had just gotten her first taste of it at the Sahara in Las Vegas, and this was her European debut as a cabaret artiste. Most people had only seen her in films, so they didn’t know what a great live performer she was.

TM: One of the drawbacks to venues like the FireBird Café or the Oak Room at the Algonquin is that they force the performer to “play tennis” all night, going back and forth to play to the audience on both sides. Still, the FireBird seems to work very well for your show, due to its intimacy.

BEAMAN: It’s a challenging room, because it’s very difficult to sustain the illusion “up close.” So the work I did with the wig maker, the costume designer, and with my make-up was to get down to the fine details. One of the fun things about this kind of a show is that the audience participates in the illusion. They buy into it for an hour, and that’s great. I’m fortunate to have Matt Berman doing my lights; he understands the Marlene image, and that her own education in lighting came from her work with von Sternberg early in her film career. Matt and I talked in terms of images. To me, each song is its own little jewel with its own atmosphere. Because I don’t move very much, I want to take the audience somewhere and paint a picture for them.

TM: I have to ask you about that dress! I was sitting with some fashion designers at your show, and when you dropped the fur stole, they gasped.

BEAMAN: Well, the costume is very important to this piece. One of the things that put Marlene over as a cabaret performer was that she had these nude-looking dresses made for her by Jean-Louis. The costume was just as much a part of the excitement as her performance. Jean-Louis created three gowns for her first appearances in Las Vegas, and the dress I wear is based on one of them. We worked with a gentleman named Kevin Baratier from Philadelphia, and the costume was designed by Deborah Caney. It’s in three pieces: There’s a body stocking that’s completely seamless on the top and has the silicon padding and corseting worked into it. Over that is a black body stocking beaded with specially ordered appliqués to get the right shape and color, and close to 2,000 Swarovski crystals, which give it that “pop.” Then there’s the skirt, which attaches and blends up into the beading on the bodice. It’s a beautiful costume–certainly, the most beautiful I’ve ever had. Deborah also made the wig for me. She used to work for Paul Huntley, so she’s a fantastic wig maker.

TM: Did you have to spend a lot of time perfecting Marlene’s vocal mannerisms, styles, and nuances?

BEAMAN: Well, I have a very good ear. I’ve always been a mimic. You have to saturate yourself with recordings; the Café de Paris concert is one of Marlene’s first full-length LPs, so the entire concert is available to listen to. But what I had to do was listen to it and listen to it–and then put it away. Audiences want an authentic sound, but they also want an interpretation; and if you’re so concerned with the mechanics of it, you can come off like an animated wax figure, like something out of the Hall of Presidents. Marlene had a lot of power in her voice, but she used a lot of chest. In her early recordings, you hear a thin, reedy voice, but she later developed–partly through years of smoking–a chesty, throaty mix. She jumps between this nasal quality and a sort of purring sound, so it’s a very difficult voice to do. I’m a lyric baritone, and it has actually strengthened the top notes of my voice to do Marlene. But, after a Lauren Bacall show, I’m hamburger meat! Bacall does a lot of shouting.

TM: What’s next for you, James?

BEAMAN: We pushed really hard to make sure this show came about when it did. My next step is to attract backers to move the two acts as a full-length piece to a theater. I’m also looking for management, because the Marlene centennial is coming up in 2001, and there’s going to be a lot of interest in her. I want to create a tour of Germany, England and France–places where people really love her legend. We want to do a CD of both shows together, now that we have a full band that we’re really happy with. And I’m building my website, which will be in both German and English. Next week I’m going to be on national television on the A&E Biography special about Marlene. I was interviewed in costume in a cabaret room, so that should be interesting. I’m just going to let Marlene “take me” for a while. I do have a couple of other projects up my sleeve that I’m in the process of researching. But, for right now, I want to keep doing these pieces that we’ve spent so much time developing.