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A CurtainUp Review


There are certain names that evoke instant images of glamour and sex appeal, Marlene Dietrich is right at the head of the list. The blonde hair, the slinky figure, the deep German accented voice all contributed to a Goddess image that endured until she was well past what most consider a star's prime.

In Pam Gems' play we meet her at age sixty-five and at the Paris stop of a world concert tour. While Pam Gems' play tells us a fair amount about Marlene and shows her hausfrau side by having her scrub her dressing room while kneeling on her mink For the full story of the Hollywood era which seeded the screen seductress image you have to go back to her daughter Maria Riva's biography (written while Dietrich was alive and with her permission).

There's no plot, unless you want to consider the stage fright which propels the extended backstage scenes and keeps us from getting to the meat and potatoes part of the evening -- the half hour concert in full glittering regalia during which we are treated to ten famous numbers, including "Lili Marlene," "La Vie En Rose" and "Falling In Love Again."

The first act does tease us with a few song bites but it makes for too long a wait for Sian Phillips as Marlene in all her well-preserved glory. There are some poignant moments when she talks about her conflicts about her native land but generally the soliloquies that lead up to this grand finale tend to make too much of the stage fright business without giving us a really rounded stage biography.

Don't be fooled either by the play's listing of three characters. This is Marlene's and by extension Sian Phillips' show. Mary Diveny as the loyal dresser "Mutti" (German for mother) hovers around the stage as an eerie and devoted silent shadow (her concentration camp incarceration has left her mute). Margaret Whitton as her friend and manager Vivian has a bit more to do as a playwright who put aside her own work to be with the aging icon during her last concert. One gets the feeling that Ms. Gems tried to make her all the women with whom Marlene was sexually involved. The trouble is that this is just one more diversion keeping us from seeing just what it was about Marlene that made her a super star even though her acting never matched that of such contemporaries as Joan Bennett, Vivien Leigh and Rita Hayworth.

Sian Philips is an extraordinarily fine and diverse actress (can anyone who saw her Livia in the Public Television series I Claudius ever forget her?) -- far more so than Dietrich ever was -- and her impersonation does not disappoint. She doesn't really look like Dietrich or have quite as sexy a voice, yet once she's harnessed into that tight-as-a-second skin glittering beaded gown, she manages to make us think she does. One can only hope that she'll return to New York soon in a play that's wonderful throughout and not just in its finale.

By Pam Gems
Directed by Sean Mathias. Starring Sian Phillips
With Margaret Whitton, Mary Diveny
Musical Direction and Incidental Music: Kevin Amos
Scenic Design :John Arnone
Lighting Design: Marc Jonathan
Costume Design: David C. Woolard
Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th St, (212/239-6200)
Running time: two hours, 20 minutes.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 4/14 performance

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