[article as originally published in Theater Pizzazz, January 14, 2017.]
Ute Lemper was framed in her recent 54 Below engagement by comfort and edginess – black leather pants topped with a short sleeveless black sheath dress. These costuming contrasts were mirrored in the juxtaposition of her elegant physicality (dancing arms and calm composure) with the grit of her lyrical substance and the smooth growls of her vocals. She dubbed 54 Below for the duration of her show “54 floors beneath the soul” and regaled us with “stories from the dark side.”
In her guttural and warmly accented alto, Lemper pulled from a standards and longer shows she has crafted around writers and poets. Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “Moritat of Mecky Messer” (“Mack the Knife”) held a place of pride, sung in German and in English, in the middle of the initial act of tone poems. Lemper made numerous comments on the parallels between Mack the Knife and the President-Elect, as “the monster of manipulation” – “Show me the way to the next whisky bar / show me the way to the White House.”
Also in this initial section, we were entranced by the haunting “Streets of Berlin” (lyrics by Martin Sherman and music by Philip Glass) from the 1997 movie Bent, originally sung by Mick Jagger in drag. A sweet piece called “Ghosts of Berlin” came from an album Lemper wrote for her children during her first divorce, she noted with smile. In “On Brecht,” written by Lemper in German, we heard and felt gypsy ghetto undertones, pain and pathos, and joy.
A second section set poetry of the Charles Bukowski to compositions by Lemper, drawn from a larger Lemper show called The Bukowski Project. Fragments of lyrics and commentary paint a sorrowful and compelling picture: “welcome to hell” and “empty pockets now” from several pieces contrast the slightly more lighthearted piece “Blue Bird” that contains the lyric “there is a bluebird in my heart who wants to get out.”
The final performance section painted emotional musical images from Lemper musical collaborations with the words of Brazilian lyricist and novelist Paulo Coelho. Drawing upon his book The Alchemist, Lemper created musical sections named “Movement,” “Solitude,” “Love,” and “Change,” with lyrical musings such as “There are no winners or losers, there are only stages and chapters.”
Musical director Vana Gierig at the piano, bassist Romain Lecuyer, Victor Villena on the accordion-like “bandoneon,” and Todd Turkisher on percussion crafted a consistent, haunting, murky, mesmerizing atmosphere.
While lyrical nuances were always communicated through Lemper’s sometimes thickly accented English, her musical sensibilities, her voice-as-instrument, and her marvelous musicians perfectly attuned to her song choices and emotional layers conveyed all the bleak yet somehow hopeful possibilities of a rainy wintery evening in Berlin or Paris, or of a Bukowski barfly scenario in any seedy watering hole anywhere.
Ute Lemper Songs from the Broken Heart, took place January 7, 8, and 11, 2017 at Feinstein’s/54Below (254 West 54th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue). For reservations and information, call 646-476-3551 or visit www.54Below.com