Of course, these songs were the speciality of such memorable artists as Lotte Lenya, Martha Schlamme and Marlene Dietrich who set standards of authenticity and theatricality quite difficult—but not impossible—to achieve nowadays. (As bothersome as Ute Lemper can be, she is an exemplary stylist.)
The concept of Love for Sale, though not particularly original, is not a bad one, except for one very important factor: Ms. Burke is not up to either the singing or acting demands of Love for Sale, a voyage from innocence to jaded sophistication as told in mostly dark, melodramatic songs, ironically influenced by the American films that flooded Europe in the twenties and thirties. It’s an extraordinarily difficult repertoire that constantly threatens to be silly expressions of impossibly colorful and desperate characters.
Ms. Burke’s voice is a thin, high soprano which always seems to be searching for the right note. A problem with pitch isn’t necessarily a deal breaker when interpreting the music of Weill or Friedrich Hollaender (who wrote many songs for Dietrich who was known primarily as a ritzy, witty stylist, not a belter). What this repertoire needs is a sense of world-weariness and a total identification with the words.
What it doesn’t need is someone who hides her musical inadequacies with forays into the audience where she teased, flattered and otherwise interacted with the people whose raptness was constantly challenged by her silly intrusions.
In Act One, dressed in a loose, layered black outfit and a puffy hairdo, she sashayed through the crowd to sing “The Barbara Song” (Weill/Brecht/Blitzstein). She included both well known repertory—“Alabama Song,” “Nickel under the Foot” (Blitzstein), “That’s Him” and “Speak Low” (both by Weill & Ogden Nash)—in addition to some fascinating treasures like “Moon About Town” (Suesse/Harburg), about being alone in NYC; “A Little Yearning” (Hollaender), a sweet song about flirtation; and the Weill/Brecht bitterly anti-war “Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife.”
In Act Two, now ensconced in a tight, strapless dress and a silly pageboy style wig, she offered more fine songs, all performed eagerly, but amateurishly. Again, she wandered about the audience members making jokes while singing Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” the Weill/Brecht masterpiece, “Surabaya Johhny” and Hollaender’s “Illusions”(so stunningly sung by Dietrich in the film A Foreign Affair), ending with “Mandalay” (Weill/Brecht—from Happy End), about a doomed sexual relationship. She ripped off her wig with a dramatic gesture, but wound up only undermining her already fragile hold on the material.
Charles Alterman, the music director/pianist, played well but, for some reason, did not dress for the occasion, wearing modern, slightly sloppy, clothing. Since he was, in fact, a character in this cabaret charade, he might have made an effort to dress in period garb, a lack I lay at the feet of the show’s director, Robert F. Gross who also clearly did not know how to coach Ms. Burke.
Love for Sale (extended through March 3, 2017)
Huron Club/SoHo Playhouse, 15 VanDam Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212- 691-1555 or visit http://www.sohoplayhouse.com
Running time: 95 minutes including one intermission
A flawed attempt at a period cabaret musical.