Set in the political whirlwind of 1932-33 Berlin, Lili Marlene familiarly alternates between the worlds of the dissolute cabaret and the entrenched upper crust. Rosie Penn (sweet-voiced Amy Londyn) is the star at the Schnelles Katzen-Kabarett whose emcee, Renate (Rachel Leighson, lively and energetic) has romantic interest in her. Rosie is an uneasy hybrid of Sally Bowles and Elsie Marina (the female lead characters of Cabaret and The Prince and the Showgirl, respectively) but, as written, less interesting than either, although Ms. Londyn, a sweet presence, does her best with the material.
Stagedoor Johnny, Count Hans Wilhelm von Kleister-Graf—aka Willi (Clint Hromsco, who succeeds admirably in a poorly written role)—woos Rosie and takes her home to his upper-crust family where she is, at first, awkward and out of place. She tries to impress Willi’s physician sister, Countess Marlena von Kleister-Graf Kellesburg—aka Marlena (Audrey Federici, a strong, centering presence)—and her stern husband, Friedrich Kellsburg (Louie Bartolomeo, a suitable, if clichéd, stuff-shirt), also a doctor.
The three Kellsburg siblings, twins medical student Janine (a stalwart Rebecca Brunelle) and political activist Josef (handsome, passionate Matt Mitchell) and their 14-year-old brother Jacob (an eager-beaver James David Dirck) fill out the principal cast. Josef romanticizes his uncle Willi and is an ardent anti-Nazi, which gets him into trouble, the kind of trouble that drives the engine of Lili Marlene’s plot, causing each character to make life changing decisions.
What might have been a dazzling dramatic situation—even with its echoes of so many other plays—is reduced to a plodding script, interrupted by very ordinary songs (albeit, well sung by the hard-working cast). Antin seems blind to being a copycat. Even a touch of same-sex romance and semi-clothed chorus girls, can’t raise the pulse of this show. And the unsurprising upbeat ending, despite the tragedy that precedes it, is unconvincing.
The songs never come up to the title song made famous by Marlene Dietrich who’s mentioned several times during the play. Antin’s attempt at playful seduction, “Take Me Home Tonight,” sung by the half-dressed cabaret girls and his German-style drinking song, “Fill My Stein with Beer” are pleasant pastiche, but “How Can Germany Survive?” (sung by the beleaguered Willi) and “Time to Stand Up” (sung by Josef) are heavy-handed and obvious. The lyrics throughout, even in the love songs are of the “moon-June” variety, but, as mentioned, are sung with great feeling.
The set, as all sets at the St. Luke’s Theatre must be, are catch as catch can (and uncredited), but the costumes by Adrianna Covone, except for an anachronistic touch or two, are extravagant for an off-Broadway production. Ms. Covone is helped by Stephen Staneç’s hair and makeup creations.
Maarten Cornelis’ lighting does what it could to make the tiny stage interesting to look at.
Anessa Marie, on keyboard, was the hardworking accompanist.
Mark Blowers, the director and choreographer keeps the show moving along. His choreography, however, could have been more creative and daring.
Lili Marlene (through October 10, 2017)
John Lant & Tamra Pica and Write Act Repertory
St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 West 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com
Running time: two hours including one intermission