These days, most people don’t know who Marlene Dietrich was or what she did. They barely know who Judy Garland is or Liza Minnelli. So, when a show highlights the life and eccentricities of the 1930’s icon, you kind of need to spell it out. Just More Theatre’s production of Dietrich Rides Again, starring the talented Justyna Kostek, needs to flesh out, cut out, and hone their piece, which is more like cabaret than theatre.
This show needs to grab you from the start and the book by Oliver Conant and Ms. Kostek seems to not know where it’s going or what it is. Ms. Dietrich was a sexual predator, sleeping with both men and women. This is barely tapped. She was an ambitious performer who started in silent films, performed cabarets in a decadent Berlin, and moved to Hollywood when her country was at war. Dietrich was noted for her humanitarian efforts during the war. She became “Box Office Poison,” but reinvented herself with the USO and as a concert artist. Very little of this is touched on. Instead, we get eleven songs which are unevenly performed. Part of the problem here is Ms. Kostek spends a lot of time changing clothes behind a screen, while musical director Jono Mainelli plays overly long incidental music. What this does is break any kind of theatrical momentum. Another problem is this show is broken up into two acts and should just play straight through.
Ms. Kostek is appealing, but she needs to study Dietrich’s sound just a little bit more. Dietrich purred in the low guttural German and through off her sexuality like it was a bore. Ms. Kostek manages to do this, but not consistently. Also, when she sings, “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” she sings in soprano, but the sound is wrong. It needs to be more like Billie Burke (Glinda in The Wizard of Oz). Furthermore, there is an awkwardness to Ms. Kostek that a couple of ballet classes would help, but she is only 24 and is impressive in many ways.
The direction by Mr. Conant is actually well done but needs to hone the excessive moments.
Dietrich Rides Again could be a rather interesting and a well-done show, it just needs some more time.
Dietrich Rides Again: The Medicine Show Theatre, 549 West 52nd St. Until Sept. 17.