Dietrich & Chevalier Review
Putting Marlene Dietrich together with Maurice Chevalier in a musical must have seemed inspired, especially since the great German-born actress and the French-born song-and-dance-man apparently thought such a pairing a good idea themselves: At the height of their Hollywood fame in the 1930’s, they were secret lovers, although married to others.
More than a decade later, they were still friends when Dietrich, fiercely anti-Nazi, had become a U.S. citizen and traveled the world entertaining American troops, while Chevalier, having returned to France and his origins as a cabaret singer, was accused of collaborating with the Nazis, and tried for it in a French court of law.
“Dietrich & Chevalier, the Musical,” which has just opened at St. Luke’s Theater in the theater district, could thus theoretically appeal to the audience on three levels — as a glamorous romance, an intriguing tale of friendship and loyalty during World War II, and as a vehicle for 15 signature songs from two of the 20th century’s supreme entertainers. Such tuneful evergreens as “Falling In Love Again,” “Isn’t It Romantic,” “Louise,” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” were composed by some of the most familiar names in musical theater, including Frank Loesser and Rodgers and Hart. Why did nobody think of this sooner?
But for all its possibilities, and the charms and talents of the three-member cast, “Dietrich & Chevalier” scores with the songs, and otherwise registers largely as a missed opportunity.
The two stars meet in 1932 when they are assigned adjoining dressing rooms at Paramount Studios. She is about to make “Shanghai Express,” one of the half-dozen or so movies directed by Josef von Sternberg that have secured her place in film history. He is soon to star in the first of several movie musicals with Jeanette McDonald (before she began her long movie musical reign opposite Nelson Eddy). After some flirtatious bantering, Chevalier and Dietrich kiss.
“You’re impossible,” Dietrich says.
“I will be even more impossible if we don’t take this opportunity to finally bring France and Germany together,
in a permanent peace treaty, n’est-ce pas?” Chevalier replies.
“You are uncontrollably French, thank goodness,” she says. “Vive la France.”
Let us put aside how improbable it is that any French person and any German person would say these things to one another in 1932, and how irritating it would be if they had. The musical doesn’t pretend that theirs was much more than a casual affair, at least to Dietrich, who, we are told, had many lovers, including her co-stars Gary Cooper, Cary Grant and Clark Gable, but remained emotionally faithful to her husband.
“Dietrich & Chevalier” suggests that Chevalier was more serious about the affair – he offers to divorce his wife for Dietrich – but the show is less explicit about what were clearly Chevalier’s own prodigious inclinations. (Jeannette McDonald reportedly called him “the quickest derriere pincher in Hollywood.”)
In any case, theirs was an affair that is less likely to strike us as a sizzling romance than as an interesting oddity, since our memory of Dietrich may include images of exotic, smoky sensuality, but most of us who remember Chevalier picture him as the stocky, white-haired old gentleman in a straw hat who sang “Thank Heavens for Little Girls.”
The cast does what it can, but they are upstaged by the stars they are playing (or our memory of them). Robert Cuccioli , who was Javert in “Les Miserables” and starred in “Jekyll & Hyde” certainly has the singing chops, and does well with Chevalier’s insouciance. He also offers us a glimpse into a self-centered ambition driven by a miserable childhood. Jodi Stevens is a Broadway veteran, and knows how to put over a song. But her Dietrich is a cheerful blonde. Maybe Dietrich was a blonde, but to me she will always be in black and white. Maybe she was also cheerful most of the time, but I can’t help thinking of her as sultry if not sullen, and when I see her as cheerful I think, well this could be anybody.
After their affair has fizzled in the first act, we rarely see them together again until the end; they perform alone on the tiny stage or interact with a series of other characters, from Dietrich’s husband to a grateful Jewish songwriter to a Nazi ambassador (all played by the versatile Donald Corren.)
“Dietrich & Chevalier,” could have been a thought-provoking look at two friends taking divergent paths during a deeply traumatic time. There are serious issues with which one could grapple here, similar to those brought up in the 2004 play “Hannah and Martin” by Kate Fodor, about the love affair and friendship between Hannah Arendt, the Jewish political philosopher who covered the Nuremberg war crimes trials and wrote “The Banality of Evil,” and her former teacher, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who had been a member of the Nazi party. Arendt tried to help rebuild Heidegger’s career after the war, which both baffled and intrigued Fodor.
“I have to believe that Arendt engaged in some sort of struggle to understand how she could still care so deeply for somebody who had embraced the very things she had spent her life fighting,” Fodor told me in an article I wrote about her play in the New York Times.
Was Arendt’s willingness to overlook Heidegger’s evil choices, the playwright wondered, a sign of compassion or of something more complicated and less admirable?
Such questions do not seem to have engaged Jerry Mayer, the author of “Dietrich & Chevalier,” who has written eight plays and before that worked for many years in television (he was executive producer for a time of “The Facts of Life”). Chevalier was never a member of the Nazi Party; he agreed to sing on the Nazi-run radio station and to perform in Nazi-occupied Paris, as well as at a POW camp for French soldiers in Germany; he had refused to perform in Berlin. Mayer explains Chevalier’s decision by showing the Nazis blackmailing him with the knowledge that his wife was Jewish. The situation is different from Martin Heidegger’s both in obvious and in mind-bending ways: After his trial, Chevalier remained popular in France, but was shunned for a time in the United States, barred from entry in the early 1950s not because of his association with Nazis but because of his involvement in the effort (said to have been initiated by Communists) to ban nuclear weapons.
There is no real explanation in Mayer’s piece for Dietrich’s defense of Chevalier; she is shown standing up for a friend:
“Darling, I know you too well to doubt your patriotism. I remember whenever we made love, at the height of our passion, you always shouted ‘Vive la France.’”
It is bad enough that we hear “Vive la France” used two separate times as a punch line for not-very-funny jokes of questionable taste. What’s worse is imagining what a playwright more interested in the real-life characters and situations in “Dietrich & Chevalier” would have had them say instead.
Follow Jonathan Mandell on Twitter at New York Theater
Dietrich & Chevalier The Musical by Jerry Mayer
St. Luke’s Theatre (308 West 46th Street)
Directed by Pamela Hall
Set by Scott Heineman and Josh Iacovelli, lighting by Graham Kindred, costumes by Karen flood, multi-media design by Chris Jensen
Musical direction by Ken Lundie, musical staging by Gene Castle
Cast: Robert Cuccioli, Jodi Stevens, Donald Corren
Running time: Two hours with a 15-minute intermission
Ticket prices: $36.50 to $59.50
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