Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Lilli Marlene

Lilli Marlene is a cabaret show mistakenly billing itself as a musical. Because Linn Maxwell’s singing talent so overwhelms the weak script by Kathryn Ryan, I often found myself tuning out the story as I waited for Maxwell to present another of the wonderful World War II-era hits that are the basis for the play.

This is not to say Lilli Marlene isn’t an enjoyable show. With songs like “As Time Goes By”, “It Had to Be You” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” interpreted and sung movingly by Maxwell, it’s definitely an entertaining way to spend 90 minutes. But the three friends Maxwell portrays never become real characters to care about because time is too short. The songs, among the most beautiful love songs ever written, are the true story of the evening, and the only one we really need.

It would be impossible for someone like me who is well acquainted with cabaret superstar Andrea Marcovicci’s show I’ll Be Seeing You: Love Songs of World War II not to draw a comparison. Marcovicci uses the device of an imaginary woman whose husband is at war and suggests her longing and anxiety to introduce each song. But this “story” is only a small part of the show, mostly just a clever form of cabaret patter.

In Lilli Marlene, Maxwell portrays Daphne, a midwestern housewife who gave up her singing career when she got married, Rose, a British music hall performer, and Lilli, a German opera singer. Their stories are told through the letters they write to one another. Lana Fritz has designed small, effective sets for each in different areas of the stage and Maxwell moves easily from one to the other, changing only her accent and an article of clothing -- an apron for Daphne, long scarf for Rose and hat for Lilli.

I’d rather have the scripted part shortened so Maxwell, a classically trained singer who has appeared with major orchestras and opera companies around the world, could sing more -- I wanted every verse of each song. Her voice is far stronger than Marcovicci’s, and I say that as someone who has been a big fan of that singer since I was in high school more than three decades ago. Better still, let that gorgeous music shine alone and develop Daphne, Rose and Lilli into full characters in a play that allows them to live. Ninety minutes isn’t enough time for both.

Tickets for Lilli Marlene, at the Abingdon Theatre (312 W. 36 St. –- between Eighth and Ninth Avenues), are $25 and are available through Smart Tix, (212) 868-4444 or

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