From the second Ute Lemper sauntered on stage, the Colonial Theatre was turned into a Berkshire version of Cabaret International. Last evening, August 27, was a night to remember. The renowned song stylist sang in her adopted English as well as her Native German, her fluent French, and her newest love – the peculiar spanish spoken by Argentinean bandoneón players. Only in Buenos Aires will you find Argentines who are Italians who speak Spanish,dress French and think they are British Her familiarity with the daring music of composer Astor Piazzolla led her to title the evening, Last Tango in Paris.
And as expected, Ute Lemper delivered the classic songs, from Brecht/Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” and “Bilbao”, with some Threepenny Opera thrown in, including having the audience whistle along with “Mack the Knife.” Later the audience clapped along with the Edith Piaf signature song, Milord, about a prostitute trying to claim the attentions of a potential British client of high birth. She also delivered another Piaf classic, though in Lemper’s own unique and inimitable style, “L’Accordoniste.” Again about a prostitute, this time willing to wait for her love, a squeeze box player.
Ute Lemper was decked out in a sparkling full length gown, with the mandatory slit to show a little leg, hugging tight to her upper torso to let the undulations of her arms and shoulders carry much of the message of the songs. At times her arms were stormy seas, at others, an invitation to dance, or the wings of a high flying bird. Her hands also told stories, to come hither, or to stop and to tease. Lemper had as many variations to her physical delivery as to her vocal pyrotechnics. In fact, given the undulating, spinning, bending and posing, it is unlikely the artist has to even bother with daily exercise. In her never ceasing efforts to deliver the lyrics, and keep the audience wowed, she hardly ever stops moving during the delivery of a song.
She could deliver a tune simply, as it is written, but rarely does. For one song, she lounged on the grand piano, talking intimately with the pianist, and kicked up one leg to tease him. She reinterprets the lyrics, plays with the melody line and never opts for the standard smooth interpretations but instead goes for the guts behind what often seem like gossamer lyrics. Some singers interpret the lyrics, she mines them. The result is a revelation. At times she utilized scat singing, in German and French no less – now that was a twist! She also duplicated the sounds of a trumpet playing with her voice and lips alone. At other times one could detect the innovations of Bobby McFerrin and Billy Holiday. Yet the result was uniquely her own, and each one sounded fresh and new to her audiences ears. In short she is among the most amazing song stylists ever to live. Giving fresh life to a song Dietrich or Jacques Brel made famous (“Falling in Love Again” and “Amsterdam”. for example) was only part of her genius. She made each song a story, a French chanson, whatever the language.
In between her athletic, fortissimo delivery of the songs, she turned down the volume and talked intimately with the audience. Often at a whisper, and in a variety of languages, I would be surprised if even the polyglots in the audience got more than half of what she said.
The sound system operator seems to have taken more than half the show to figure out her dynamic range, and the balance was heavy on the high end, skimpy on the low, perhaps the sound person has some hearing impairment themselves. And Lemper’s insistence on jogging the mike at the end of a key phrase was more annoying than helpful. Lemper herself seemed to have a problem with one of the floor speakers as she inserted sound adjustment requests between numbers. Perhaps there was no time for a solid tech rehearsal. Just guessing.
Joining Lemper on stage was an uncredited pianist and bandoneon player, both of considerable skill, the pianist providing a never ceasing background soundtrack as Lemper spoke of her life, her feelings about Berlin, and the music. The bandoneón player amazed me since he not only was able to master the difficult notes of ‘Yo Soy Maria” and “Pajaros Perdidos” but was also able to duplicate the style of a French accordionist when called for.
The evening with Ute Lemper was one of the most down to earth evenings of high culture that the Berkshires have ever seen, and it was wonderful to see that so many sophisticated people turned out for the rare chance to hear and hear true European style cabaret. It is not a popular art form, in fact it is far off most people’s radar. You never see it on television,, and only get hints of it in movies like, well, Cabaret.
Of late we have been lucky in the Berkshires that not only the Colonial Theatre – which books cabaret artists on a regular basis – but also Julianne Boyd at Barrington Stage Company (BSC) and Kate Maguire at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (BTF) have undertaken special performances for those of us in the area. BTF recently hosted Sutton Foster, and BSC brings Tyne Daly to their main stage next week.
And as more of these specialized artists make themselves known in the Berkshires, the audiences for cabaret continue to grow. And the presence of cabaret is a sign of sophistication and savvy that continue to enhance its reputation as the place to go not only for great music, but for great theatre as well. For cabaret, as so eloquently demonstrated by Ute Lemper, is a combination of both. Thanks must also go to WAMC which was a sponsor of this extraordinary evening.