I was still warming frigid fingers Friday night, when before me unfolded something like a history of the world viewed from a small café: an enchanted journey from the gaslights of Berlin to the crowded alleys of Buenos Aires.
Ute Lemper, goddess of contemporary cabaret, professor of sentimental song, and ironic interlocutor of musical memory, is at Joe’s Pub through Sunday Dec. 13 singing a program entitled “Last Tango in Berlin.” The program features some lovely songs by Piazzolla, including her wacky extemporization on “Balada para un Loco” in which the New York City resident spins its lyrics to reflect our manic town. But the real magic of this musical fondue lies in the sensual charm lent to her beloved German Weimar songs and French chansons by the generous sound of the Argentine bandoneón, played here by Tito Castro.
Long and slender in a gentleman’s tuxedo and top hat, she began her set with women’s stories – Brel’s almost-heroine in “Chanson de Jacky”; then Piazzolla’s bittersweet song of regret, “Maria de Buenos Aires.” But the mood gained buoyancy with the rousing “Port d’Amsterdam” in which she set the true direction of the evening – an apotheosis of the cabaret itself. She is the living translator of that lost café of memory, and treasured throughout the world as one of our greatest exponents of the international popular repertoire. Explaining her way through this musical history lesson, Ms. Lemper’s show is an Ars Poetica of cabaret, and she is our Virgil of its smoky demi-monde.
On musical values alone, Lemper is a phenomenon. Unleashing both wild roars and gentle purrs, her instrument is in terrific shape, and her passionate lyrical arches never resort to belting. Her “Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife)” is the authentic interpretation of our time; stripped of Bobby Darin’s or Ella Fitzgerald’s fond adornments, she served it up in virtuosic, theatrical style. Her alt-Berlin dialect in this crowd favorite files it once again under “classic thriller-ballad,” alongside Schubert’s Erlkönig. It was eagerly lapped up by her enchanted audience, whom she enlisted to whistle along its tune.
For one who sells out gala-priced tables at Café Sabarsky and the Carlyle, Lemper is astonishingly comfortable wedged among the foreign tourists and burger-munching hipsters at Joe’s Pub. The service is a little choppy, and food was served throughout her set. It seemed something akin to sacrilege when I considered finishing my meal in her presence. (Alas, I was too distracted by the show.) But Lemper takes it all in stride, clearly in love with the approximate authenticity of the cabaret setting – its tinkling silverware, hushed chatter, and unpredictability.
Lemper shifts beguilingly from the winsome to the garish. A medley blended the nostalgic Dietrich hit “Ich habe einen Koffer in Berlin” to a masculine and cocky “All that Jazz” (with the authentic Bob Fosse moves) and finally to an improvised and comedic scat on “I’m a Vamp.” Her mischief is all-encompassing, and she’s happy to use unsuspecting guests in the front row as bawdy props, then mimic a trumpet serenade in the Louis Armstrong style (“Here, baby, Ein kleines Geburtstagständchen für dich!”) or sing “Happy Birthday” á la Marilyn Monroe. She finished “Vamp” by biting the neck of a shy girl in the back row.
She finds both grotesquerie and an imagined, idealized past in her adaptation of Weill-Brecht’s “The Bilbao Song.” Her spoken intro riffs on German Expressionism: the bloated moon, she speculates, is overweight – overfed, diabetic, pockmarked. (Her postulate: Too many American hamburgers?) So much for romance. But her version of the song reminds us, by replacing the name of its little café with “Joe’s Pub,” that we never had it so good – the moon is out tonight, this is that café of memory, and our song is coming up.
Between heartfelt ovations from a grateful audience, Ms. Lemper took requests for her encore – it was Piaf’s “Ne me quitte pas.” With a wink, she turned the tables: “Aw, now you made me sad!”
Ute Lemper sings through Sunday at Joe’s Pub. Three shows remain – visit www.joespub.com for tickets and information.