The Marlene Dietrich and Maurice Chevalier we remember were artificial figures, carefully lit, costumed and photographed, their media images manipulated and protected. They were stunning in their glamour and originality, but meant entirely for the screen. For his play Dietrich and Chevalier, Jerry Mayer unearthed some unexpected biographical data on these two stars, all of it apparently authentic. The two met in 1932 and, despite the fact that both were married, began an affair. But World War II upended their lives. Dietrich, contemptuous of Hitler and resolutely opposed to anti-Semitism, became an American citizen in 1939, joined war-bond drives and tirelessly entertained the troops, earning a Medal of Freedom from the U.S. government. Chevalier returned to France, where he — like many other artists — performed despite the Occupation, and also made an appearance at a prisoner-of-war camp, though only under duress, and only to gain the release of some of the prisoners. He was tried after the war for these actions, and Dietrich was among the well-known figures who testified for him in court. Although the Chevalier-Dietrich affair soon flamed out, they remained friends for life.
Mayer's cardboard script never humanizes these interesting figures, however. Whether speaking or singing, they maintain their artificial personae, simply mouthing words that carry the action forward. Dietrich was a great artist and a fascinating woman with a fine, self-mocking sense of humor — but she was also a trouble-making, go-to-hell narcissist with a fondness for drink and drugs. And Chevalier didn't actually talk in the same exaggerated accent he used for his songs. The script implies love between the two of them, despite their famed promiscuity, at least until Chevalier took up with the far younger Nita Raya — but there's no lovers' intimacy in the dialogue (and, anyway, given Dietrich's several known lovers, both male and female, during this period of her life, real feeling would seem a stretch). What fun it would have been to see Dietrich and Chevalier without their masks, to track the concessions and demands, fights and softenings, genuine tenderness and canny manipulation that must have existed when these two mighty egos encountered each other.
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Since there's not much life to the play, the audience is left with the songs. Fortunately, Mayer is on to something here. Paul Page and Mari Carlin Dart can't breathe warmth and empathy into Mayer's stick figures, but they can — and do — perform the numbers with energy, charm and a fair amount of verisimilitude: "Isn't It Romantic?" "Naughty Lola," "You're the Cream in My Coffee," "I Can't Give You Anything but Love," "Mimi," "The Boys in the Back Room." There's a haunting "Lili Marlene" and a pitch-perfect "Falling in Love Again." It's a big plus that the indomitable and lively-spirited Donna Koplan Debreceni is at the piano, and perhaps ironic that — unspeaking, simply reacting — she comes across as the most authentic person on the stage.