By MARILYN LESTER****In 1939, the hugely popular international film star Marlene Dietrich made the western comedy, Destry Rides Again with the equally popular American actor James Stewart. It’s from this highly acclaimed film that the one-woman musical Dietrich Rides Again takes its catchy title. The homage is clever. In many ways the show, conceived and executed by director Oliver Conant and its star, Justyna Kostek, is also clever, in addition to being a happy-making tribute. But, in more ways the show should have been titled after Dietrich’s 1929 film The Woman One Longs For. Kostek is delightful. She has a presence, knack for comedy and captivating charm on stage. You want terribly to like her and what she’s doing, but, alas, the misguided material doesn’t hang together, and the show fails to deliver on its promise of why Dietrich mattered. As well-intentioned as it may be, Dietrich Rides Again amounts to little more than flattery by imitation.
Points for gumption go to Kostek. It takes a certain amount of courage to portray a mega-legend, which the larger-than-life Dietrich certainly was. She was born in Germany in 1901, headed for a career as a concert violinist. When an injury scotched that, she gravitated toward acting on the stage and then in film. She soon moved to Hollywood, where she was the highest-paid actress of her time. Dietrich conquered film, television, the stage and the concert hall, all the while equally notable as a fashion icon, humanitarian, philanthropist and enduring sex goddess, boldly living life on her terms. Authors Conant and Kostek hit the high points, in short bursts of chronological narrative and song. Dietrich’s repertoire is well-covered, from “Falling in Love Again,” “Lili Marlene” and “The Laziest Gal in Town,” to “The Boys in the Backroom” and her startling 1932 “Hot Voodoo” from the pre-code film Blonde Venus. But in attempting to cover decades, getting to the essence of Dietrich is undercut. The result is a two-dimensional, almost cartoon version, providing little insight into her heart and soul, and no new information.
Dietrich Rides Again is billed as a “theatrical affaire.” What are we to make of this? In a pre-show introduction director Conant referred to experimental theater, an art form in which the Polish-born Kostek was trained. As Dietrich Rides Again unfolds puzzlement soon ensues. Is the show meant to be a parody, a pastiche or a burlesque? Reverence for Dietrich is much diluted by this lack of definition, abetted by Kostek’s puzzling accent, presumably an attempt at German through English already inflected by Polish. Kostek also missed the mark in trying to emulate Dietrich’s singing voice: low and sensual, delivered (on pitch) in a kind of sprechgesang. Kostek’s version was chronically off-pitch, and lacking in the sexual energy that drove Dietrich’s stylings. Also making for head-scratching moments were Conant’s sometimes unfocused direction and inexplicable choices, such as employing action at a second piano on stage right, which required serious neck-twisting and disrupted the flow of the scene.
Two high points in the production were the clever and sartorially pleasing costumes designed by Derek Nye Lockwood (which didn’t include unflattering wig design by Gerard Kelly), and the piano skills and arrangements of music director Jono Mainelli who played the show from start to finish (underscoring and musical numbers) in the way silent films were accompanied. His energy, talent, engagement and presence as an on-stage participant made a significant contribution to the presentation. Additional credits go to Madeline Jaye for choreography and Alex Moore for lighting design. Oliver Conant also designed set elements for the black box space.
Dietrich Rides Again plays through Sunday, September 17 at the Medicine Show Theatre, 549 West 52 Street (between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues). For reservations, call 1-800-838-3006 or go online to www.dietrichridesagain.brownpapertickets.com