Ute Lemper has always been a popular performer but has rarely achieved critical acclaim. All she needs is a good director and a witty writerby Herb Greer / July 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
Ute lemper was unlucky in Manchester. She finished her “Punishing Kiss” tour in the Bridgewater Hall, which is not a cabaret venue. The large stage and spacious auditorium dissipated much of her personal magnetism. This was unfortunate because Lemper badly needed that element in her performance. It might have softened the glaring faults in technique and taste which wrecked most of the evening. Watching this gifted woman perform was exasperating. She has so much going for her: physical grace; a voice of astonishing flexibility and range which would be a delight if only she had some idea of how to match it to her material; a powerful face; extraordinary eyes and a formidable stage presence. The largest close-up photo of Lemper in the programme deliberately evokes Marlene Dietrich. This is a mistake. Dietrich had a style so unmistakable that it could be, and often is, parodied. That style enhanced and heightened what she sang-as it were from the inside. Lemper’s substitute for style is her extreme and half-controlled vocal and physical mannerisms which hammer and batter almost every song she sings, warping it out of recognition. The exception, which threw the rest into appalling relief, was her rendition of one or two Jacques Brel songs. Too briefly, you glimpsed what this woman might be if a decent director could whisper a few words in her ear about simplicity. She did not try to do things with Brel’s songs; she simply stood and sang. In that stillness her performance opened up, a natural grace shone through, and her voice became a limpid source of musical pleasure. A hush filled the Bridgewater auditorium as she caressed us with Brel; it was quite wonderful. Then she resumed her roughshod tour through Kurt Weill, Philip Glass, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and others: songs so mangled that their creators ceased to matter. The Rolls-Royce which she had driven for a moment became a snarling, grinding, groaning second-hand Volkswagen bus. She caterwauled, she squawked, she deployed the vocal swoops and dips and melismatic rubbish which the pop world uses to obscure its terrible lyrics. This pounding applied to classics like Kurt Weill’s September Song, an abominably translated Surabaya Jonny, and, from Mahagonny, Wie mann sich bettet, so liegt man; lyrics twisted into meaningless noise. When the (rather trite) words in the Waits and Costello songs were partly audible, her mauling jerked them to ever lower levels of banal sentimentality. A Philip Glass lament, The Streets of Berlin, was used to beat the audience over the head with shallow Weltschmerz. As if this were not enough, in pauses now and again Lemper addressed the Manchester audience or, rather, gabbled at it. Truly, this was an awful spectacle: a striking, lissome blonde woman in a sexy costume which she wore well, gibbering suburban fan-babble which would disgrace a high school talent show. We were treated to trivial accounts of Lemper’s friendship with this or that songwriter, to little-girl gushing over her talented friends delivered in a slack and offhand manner by which, I think, she meant to convey a sort of (fake) showbiz shyness. Lemper not only needs a good director; she needs a literate and witty writer as well. Maybe Lemper is one of those unusually talented people who need parameters imposed. A trusted friend could clarify the difference, say, between power and violence in performance. The strict environment of a musical show such as Chicago-in which she was superb-would have given her clear limits. If her performance in Manchester is any guide, she is unable to find them for herself, and nobody is taking the trouble to show them to her. Someone will turn up, God willing. Soon, I hope.