Related topics

Phillips Recreates Marlene Dietrich

April 11, 1999

NEW YORK (AP) _ Marlene Dietrich was an inimitable performer, but Sian Phillips comes close to recreating the one-of-a-kind actress-singer.

``Marlene,″ in which Phillips as Dietrich emotes in a Paris dressing room for most of two acts and then goes on stage to sing her signature songs, opened Sunday night at Broadway’s Cort Theater.

The play, by Pam Gems, opened in 1997 in London, where it also was directed by Sean Mathias. Phillips also played it in Paris.

In 1969, when ``Marlene″ is set, Dietrich was 65 and on a world concert tour. Phillips is the right age to play that and, remarkably, she has the excellent, slim figure, clean jaw line and true, throaty voice for it, too. She doesn’t quite have Dietrich’s sexiness in her voice or her hypnotic presence.

Fans of Marlene Dietrich can be delighted that their idol is brought to stage life in such fine fashion but not quite equaled. The idea is, after all, that there was only one Marlene Dietrich.

With Phillips in the play are Margaret Whitton as a worshipful young playwright Dietrich has summoned to be her dresser and Mary Diveny as an elderly wardrobe mistress, mute since incarceration in a concentration camp.

Dietrich is shown first compulsively scrubbing the dressing room floor, kneeling on her folded fur coat. Later she is glamorous, belting a silk robe tightly around her, and, finally, she appears wearing a glittering gown, sewn with bugle beads, tight as a second skin.

Between musings and tantrums in the dressing room, the star sings, often starting a song before piano-violin-bass accompaniment begins. There’s nothing to hide behind, but Phillips is fearless about that, just as one assumes Dietrich would be.

Dietrich had a smutty, funny, direct way of expressing herself and that’s in the play. A listener often thinks lines would be fun to repeat _ but they aren’t polite. She speaks frankly and offhandedly about sex with men and with women. She doesn’t find sex consumingly important, she says, but it seems to give the other people’s spirits quite a lift.

Her contradictions are amusing. She’s easy, she tells her new dresser, then proves difficult, demanding a certain length of carpet and that ushers carry floral tributes _ which she has bought _ down aisles, held high.

She orchestrates a scene of autograph-seeking at the stage door as she leaves the theater and on her arrival at the hotel. Only when the hotel room door closes, she declares, does the performance end.

She laughs at herself, saying many think she tours because she needs adoration. No, she says, she does it for the money _ AND for the adoration.

Poignantly, she talks about her stage fright and about the conflicting things it means to be German. She never had a great talent or a great voice, she says. But the movie camera loved her.

And so did audiences at her later-in-life concerts. Phillips is paying real homage, making sure that Dietrich is giving another fabulous show.

Update hourly