The musical Lili Marlene takes its name from the famous German love song of World War II, first recorded in 1939. It became a hit among German troops (in spite of Joseph Goebbels’s dislike of it) and was eventually popularized among Allied troops as well, in a famous rendition by Marlene Dietrich in 1944. Yet that’s only an imaginative jumping-off point for the show of the title, which takes place between June 1932 and June 1933, at the tail end of the Weimar Republic and the first days with Adolf Hitler in power.
The focus of the story is Rosie Penn, a famous cabaret singer in early-1930s Germany, and Count Hans Wilhelm van Kleister Graff, her lover. Still the time frame is scrambled, because in Michael Antin’s book Rosie’s mentor is Dietrich herself, and Rosie has promised that she would sing “Lili Marlene” in her set every night as an homage to her idol. It is a sweet homage to the singer and the song. Amy Londyn, who plays Rosie, gives a vivid and soulful performance. She has captured the emotion and history behind “Lili Marlene” and given it her own expressive interpretation with smooth and sweet vocals.
Meanwhile, Clint Hrosco’s dashing, charismatic count, who goes by Willi, is the head of the passport bureau. He is working secretly on getting famous artists and scientists out of Germany. Upon his visit to the cabaret, he meets and falls in love with Rosie. But since Rosie is Jewish, they must soon decide whether to stay or flee Berlin.
As the story unfolds, the count's family experiences traumatic events. His nephew is murdered, and his niece becomes a victim of sexual violence. Their parents worry for their children’s safety and call upon Willi to issue them passports. Six to seven months have now passed, and the Nazis, who took power in January 1933, have infiltrated governmental offices and are heavily monitoring all procedures. To get his family to safety, the count exercise caution, because all his passport approvals are being reviewed by the military. The tension further rises when Rosie is put at risk of being sent to a concentration camp.
Antin, who also wrote music and lyrics, sets an upbeat tone to the show with early, energetic numbers, “Take Me Home” and “Fill my Stein with Beer,” performed by Rosie, the Katzen Kabarettes and the ensemble. The songs are catchy and rhythmical. One heartfelt song that stands out is a love ballad, “Let Me Send You Away,” sung by Willi and Rosie, when Willi is aware of the Nazi plans to send Jews to concentration camps and is desperately trying to convince Rosie to leave Berlin. The song captures the love they have for each other and the sacrifice that their love could cost if they stay together. Loudyn and Hromsco deliver a stellar interpretation of the song.
The echoes of Cabaret, Kander and Ebb’s classic musical about the rise of Nazism, are never far away. Antin includes a subplot about Renate (Rachel Leighson), who is the cabaret’s manager and an entertainer. Renate, a lesbian, is also at risk from the Nazis, and she must come up with creative alternatives to save her life. She accepts an invitation to marry a gay man and then flee Germany. She is aware that in Berlin her kind will not be saved. Leighson delivers a solid, poignant performance.
Overall, the production’s musical numbers follow the traditional musical format with songs interjected at pivotal moments. Most of the songs work well with the plot and theme. However, “To the Beer Hall We All Go,” a number toward the end of the musical, feels out of place. The tension is high, the protagonists are about to flee their home, and the production goes into a scene of celebratory song and dance at the cabaret. It could be interpreted as the last hurrah, but it didn’t have the intended dramatic impact. Still, the choreography by Mark Blowers is fun and sharp and works well throughout the musical, even in this number.
Blowers has cast a highly skilled and talented cast. They deliver the songs and dances with high energy and vibrancy. They give life to a world that is on the verge of mass destruction. Lili Marlene tells the story of love during this horrific time in history. It puts a sweet twist on how love is possible even in the dreariest of times.
Write Act Repertory's production of Lili Marlene runs through Oct. 10. Even performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesdays at St. Luke's Theatre (at 308 West 46th St., between Eighth and Ninth avenues). For tickets and information, call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com/off-broadway or visit stlukestheatre.com.