The complicated romance and friendship that the legendary Marlene Dietrich shared with song-and-dance man Maurice Chevalier spanned three decades, including the entirety of World War II, and both sides of the Atlantic. It’s the sort of relationship that, combined with a tumult of history, should make for terrific theater.
However, in Jerry Mayer’s workman-like Dietrich and Chevalier – The Musical, at The Theater at St. Luke’s, the couple’s passion — and the tension of the times they lived through — become merely the window-dressing for the songs the performers made famous.
The show, which is sluggishly directed by Pamela Hall, unfolds mostly in flashback as Dietrich (Jodi Stevens) recounts her first encounter that she had with Chevalier while they were both on contract at Paramount and the love affair that developed between the two (despite the fact both were married). During this section of the show, it often seems as if Mayer is working from a checklist as his script references the famous (and not so well-known) films the two made as well as the celebrities with whom the two worked and socialized.
Even as their ardor deepens, the specter of Hitler’s rise to power looms. While Dietrich is concerned; Chevalier maintains a sunny disposition. He’s less able, though, to tolerate Dietrich’s other paramours and his jealousy leads him to end the relationship, even as a spat that he has with the studio sends him back to France, just before hostilities break out.
Most theatergoers will be aware of how Dietrich spent her years during the war — entertaining troupes and actively speaking out against her homeland and its leaders. Less well-known is how Chevalier spent the war — entertaining in both Paris and in Germany and performing on German-sponsored radio broadcasts in France — and why. Myer’s writing sparks to life admirably while the musical recounts this sad portion of the seemingly always upbeat entertainer’s biography.
Unfortunately, the remainder of the show feels dramatically inert, alternating between scenes that dutifully deliver factual data and ones that set up the performers’ historical hits, such as Dietrich’s “Lili Marlene” and “Falling in Love Again” and Chevalier’s “Louise” and “Mimi.” It’s almost as if Mayer has written both a revue and a book musical and then, compressed the two very different shows into one.
Thankfully, the show is blessed with three gifted performers (including Donald Corren, who provides some sterling characterizations in a variety of roles). Cuccioli charms instantly as the sparkling Chevalier, capturing the performer’s impish lecherousness with gleeful abandon. In addition, his accent grandly brings to mind the performer, who today might be best remembered for introducing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” in Gigi toward the end of his career.
Stevens cuts a marvelous figure in some stunning period gowns from costume designer Karen Flood, but has less success with her characterization. While speaking, there are times that she sounds more like Bette Davis or Tallulah Bankhead than the Teutonic star, and there are moments when she is simply too musical delivering the music. But when she nails Dietrich’s incredible ability to be simultaneously unmelodic and musical, the effect is striking.
What’s more, Stevens and Cuccioli deliver the songs without aid of amplification — and the opportunity to hear some early 20th-century tunes delivered as they were intended may be the best recommendation for seeing this problematic show.