St. Luke's Theatre on Restaurant Row is one of the dingier theatrical spaces in NY and the pedestrian set designed there for Dietrich & Chevalier The Musical does little to enhance the surroundings. The first act of this small three person show is rather bland as well, all of which may have contributed to the fact that a number of those at the preview matinee performance I attended chose to leave at intermission and not return.
They made a mistake. The show perked up considerably in its second act and ended up providing an enjoyable afternoon's entertainment after all.
The story line is relatively slight. Marlene Dietrich (Jodi Stevens) and Maurice Chevalier (Robert Cuccioli), two of Hollywood's top stars, meet in 1932 and indulge in an illicit and inconsequential love affair. The affair ends but they remain lifelong friends. So much for Act I.
In Act II, the scene shifts from Hollywood to Europe and Ms. Dietrich's and Mr. Chevalier's lives take strikingly different turns. While Ms. Dietrich travels an honorable and heroic road, renouncing her German citizenship, becoming an American citizen, speaking out against anti-semitism and entertaining American soldiers during World War II, Mr. Chevalier allows his voice to be used on Nazi radio broadcasts, performs in Paris before audiences including Nazi officers, and may visit Berlin as well. For his actions, he is charged after the war ends with collaboration with the enemy and is put on trial for his life. While he is ultimately exonerated for lack of proof, a stain remains on his reputation. As Act II draws to a close, he is attempting, with Ms. Dietrich's assistance, to rehabilitate his theatrical life and it looks as if he will succeed in doing so.
Not much of a tale and not much drama but who cares? The raison d'etre behind this production is not the plot but to provide a platform for the expression of 15 of Ms. Dietrich's and Mr. Chevalier's greatest musical numbers, including Falling in Love Again, Louise, Lili Marlene, Mimi, Valentine, Lola, The Boys in the Back Room and eight others. After a slow start, the show certainly succeeds in doing that.
In the first act, both actors do an acceptable job in playing their respective roles but neither makes the sparks fly. In the second act, however, Mr. Cuccioli's impersonation of Mr. Chevalier is excellent, reaching its peak with his rendition of Valentine, which is close to a show stopper. And Ms. Stevens is even better yet. For if Mr. Cuccioli does a grand job of impersonating Mr. Chevalier, Ms Stevens doesn't just impersonate Ms. Dietrich, she virtually channels her.
The third member of the cast, Donald Corren, plays the other Eight Fascinating Characters in the play and does so quite well, providing context, contrast, conflict and comic relief as called for. If you're of a certain age (and at the performance I attended almost all of those in the audience were), you're likely to enjoy this show. And even if you're not, you'll probably enjoy it too. Just remember to be sure to hang around for the second act.