Ute Lemper teases her way through the first half of her new cabaret act, Voyage, a drolly knowing appreciation of all things international. It’s not that her delivery of Yiddish, Hebrew, and Arabic numbers lacks conviction. Lemper vibrates deeply with a song’s meaning even when wreathing its lyrics in quotation marks. Wrapped in a black velvet robe, which, like a professional tennis player warming up in sweatpants, she eventually removes to reveal a clingy black gown, the impossibly lithe and leggy German knows that to stoke desire you must start slowly, sneakily even, delaying the most sought-after pleasures until hope of satisfaction is breathless with worry. That’s the time to zero in on necessity, which for Lemper translates into Brecht-Weill and the music from Chicago. Her seductive irony, frustrating as it can be for those who want what they want when they want it, serves as a necessary harness. At full strength, Lemper would no doubt smash the genteel Café Carlyle to decorous bits.
Channeling Edith Piaf as much as Marlene Dietrich, Lemper lets her eyes tell the story—wide with disbelief for Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” she develops a daydreamy squint for “La Vie en Rose.” Cosmopolitan best sums up this indigenously theatrical creature, whose patter between polyglot numbers meditates on the state of hatred in the world. Far from editorializing, she simply acknowledges, with wry European wisdom, the divisiveness of the human heart—the British hate the French, the French hate the Belgians, and everyone hates the Germans. Her movement into Middle Eastern musical realms helps universalize contemporary conflicts, making them seem no longer extraordinary but part of the ongoing sturm und drang. Any lingering doubts about her expertise in affairs (foreign or otherwise) are helplessly tossed aside as she cannily slides “Mack the Knife” into an “All That Jazz” finale of ecstatic release.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 20, 2004