Ute Lemper: Last Tango in Berlin
nytheatre.com review by Sophia Bushong
December 10, 2009
As I sit to write this review, all but the last performance at Joe's Pub of the cabaret act Ute Lemper: Last Tango in Berlin, has sold out. You might want to just stop reading now and get a ticket if you can.
Ute Lemper, of course, has been a star for years and does not need me to announce her. Born in Munster, Germany in 1963, she made a name for herself playing musical theatre roles such as Sally Bowles in the Paris production of Cabaret, and Velma Kelly in the London revival of Chicago. Her collaborations with other contemporary musicians are too many to name here, but perhaps she is best known as today's foremost interpreter of Kurt Weill. She returns again and again for inspiration to the vibrant cabaret scene of the Weimar Republic. More biographical information and lists of recordings are easily found online.
She also maintains her own website.
I only speak two of the five languages in which Lemper sings in Last Tango In Berlin, but it mattered very little. As the show takes us from Paris, to Buenos Aires, to Berlin, her fluency translates her themes. On top of her sensational voice and thrilling technique, she is a world-class storyteller. She seems to carry within herself each character she has ever played: we get a glimpse of Velma, then she's Jenny from The Threepenny Opera. She revels in blurring the line between the soul of the part and the soul of the player. As she introduces the persona she will voice in each new song, her body seamlessly takes on some nuance of each of these people, be they a neglected boy from Buenos Aires, or herself as a child in Germany.
Lemper is known for an act that is politically charged and historically conscious, but her sense of humor is also an essential ingredient. Nothing escapes her attention, not even the current vampire craze. She vamps, growls, purrs, and bares her teeth the whole way through one song, all while sitting in the lap of an audience member. In our case it was "Bruce, from Montana," who grew as red as Lemper's feather boa, but no one felt sorry for him.
The show is at it's most moving when Lemper is celebrating the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. She shares her memories of a divided Germany, and her hope about the country's current direction. Lemper's show addresses the kind of issues that always face artists, now as much than ever: Is art and music relevant in the face of war and financial hardship? Like the MC in Cabaret, Lemper welcomes us to the climate crisis and the economic collapse, but embodies how passion and the human spirit can persist and prevail. Life at the cabaret continues. Ute Lemper knows exactly why the answer to the question is yes, why she is singing to us, and why it's important for us to listen.