Michael Antin, the retired tax lawyer turned prolific musical theater author, doesn’t shy away from profound and traumatic topics. Last year his musical Pillars of New York presented NYC audiences with interlinked stories of people living on the verge of the 9-11 attacks. With his new musical Lili Marlene, he reaches back to the birth of the 20th century’s defining horror to tell the story of a Jewish singer’s romance with a Berlin aristocrat at the dawn of the Nazi era.
Rosie Penn (Off-Broadway newcomer Amy Londyn), the star attraction at a cabaret, draws the admiring attention of Willi (Clint Hromsco), a bachelor Count with a lothario past. A fraught romance blossoms as we get to know his stuck-up but generous-hearted sister Marlene (Audrey Federici), a doctor, and her husband Friedrich (Louie Bartolomeo), a government official who for maintains faith for far too long that reason will prevail even as weak President von Hindenburg hands power to the upstart Hitler. Back at the cabaret, owner-emcee Renate (a moving performance by Rachel Leighson) nurses her own love for Rosie as the Nazi cloud darkens over homosexuals as well as Jews.
The cabaret numbers are very nicely written, arranged, and staged, with sunny, period-appropriate choreography by director Mark Blowers: an erotic dance number, convincingly rousing German drinking songs, and Rosie’s solos, including the wartime favorite “Lili Marlene.” The musical’s only non-original song gives it its title and becomes a leitmotif as the Jewish Rosie is ironically hired to record it for hourly play on patriotic national radio broadcasts.
Londyn is so skillful and affecting, with such a charismatic and beautiful onstage presence, it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t bring a big voice to this central role; her silvery tone and pinpoint emotional focus captivate with gentle power. It’s essential to the show that Londyn’s Rosie is a fully rounded, complex character: hard-headed yet susceptible to flattery, demure and soft-spoken yet brave and outspoken.
In contrast with her realism, Willi comes off as a cartoonish dandy when he first pushes into her dressing room, an impression not helped by his rather goofy introductory song. Hromsco’s strong-voiced portrayal is as graceful and agile as it can be given the material, but it never fully recovers from the character’s caricatured start even as the plot complicates and darkens.
Many of the musical numbers are extremely short, even some of the best. Antin’s book is also too often short on character development. The touching fates of Willi’s twin niece and nephew stand out somewhat against an otherwise mostly lightweight family story. Marlene and her family’s skimpily drawn battle with their consciences and prejudices could have been much more compelling – it’s a good tale that begs to be told more fully.
Sometimes the culprit is excessively prosaic and clichéd lyrics that weigh down sweet melodies and harmonies, and too much of the time the book tells rather than shows. Yet at its best the music and staging combine to take flight, as in the drinking songs, Rosie and Willi’s early duet, Rosie’s lament for peaceful times (“A Walk in the Park”), and Renate and Rosie’s farewell duet.
It’s no accident that Rosie is part of all the numbers in that little list. She’s the locus of a story that recalls a time and place we should never forget. The show could be developed more substantially around this German Jewish Sally Bowles, especially the way Londyn brings her to life.
An apathetic, self-centered society arises in the wake of unexpected military defeat and loss of national pride. Bit by bit it gets sucked into a vortex of totalitarianism. Sound familiar? More and more often lately, theater folks are revisiting Weimar Germany, World War Two, and the Holocaust. It’s no accident in Trump’s America. But the tale of Lili Marlene is worth telling at any time. Amy Londyn’s Rosie Penn, admirable and endearing, is worth seeing, too – but she’s a jewel that needs a firmer, fuller setting.