Performers love their party pieces, but too many solo turns are no more than exercises in unbridled narcissism. “Lilli Marlene,” the musical party piece Kathryn Ryan wrote for songbird Linn Maxwell, avoids that egotistic trap and scores points for its spirit of generosity. By wrapping itself around 18 popular songs written during World War II, Maxwell’s solo show gives musical voice to the thoughts of three friends who are anxiously waiting out the war in three cities — London, Berlin and a backwater burg in Indiana. Their only connection is these sad songs of love and war.
Although the three women played by Maxwell inhabit distinct worlds, they share the stage comfortably on Lana Fritz’s modest set, artfully decorated with period props.
Daphne, an American housewife, sits at a desk in her suburban home writing letters to the two friends she met many years ago when they were students at the Vienna Academy of Music. When the show opens in 1937, a world war still seems unthinkable. (“No one has hit anyone yet,” according to a vintage newsreel. “No one in Europe wants to go to war.”) Having given up her singing career, Daphne is entirely wrapped up in her husband and children (“It Had to Be You”).
Rose, a professional singer in one of London’s many music halls, has a different perspective. But in the beginning, she, too, is more interested in the men who flock to her dressing room. Having met one man she cares for (“Mad About the Boy”), she’s anxious when he marches off to war (“Keep the Home Fires Burning”).
Opera singer Lilli is at the height of her career. A star in Berlin’s rarefied music society, she stands in awe of Hitler, an avid opera lover “who has done so much for artists.”
Once Germany starts invading neighboring countries (to the ominous sound effects of marching boots), Lilli changes her tune. In what may be the best performed song in the show, Maxwell executes a fierce version of the immortal “Solomon Song,” written by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht for “The Threepenny Opera.”
In London, Rose reacts to the bombing of the city with an anxious rendering of “The White Cliffs of Dover.”
Although Daphne seems safe from the “European squabble,” her life is not untouched. Missing her husband, who has taken a government job in Washington (“Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night in the Week”), she goes to work in a factory and starts singing again at the USO.
As the war goes on, the songs become more intense, reflecting the women’s deepening fears. Rose’s darkest hour is conveyed in “As Time Goes By,” while Lilli delivers a passionate plea for peace in Wagner’s “Weiche, Wotan,” from “Das Rheingold.” But it is Hans Leip’s haunting “Lilli Marlene” that best captures the hopelessness of their situation.
It’s hard to say why this wonderful material fails to wipe us out. Maxwell is an accomplished singer with a distinguished career in opera and musical theater. The songs she has chosen for this well articulated song cycle never feel forced into the service of a dramatic moment. And the spare spoken text makes few acting demands on a performer who would clearly be uncomfortable with anything too challenging.
It may be the accents. Maxwell really exerts herself to create characters for the three women, but she has chosen to do so by paying excruciatingly detailed attention to their accents. Perhaps she should ease up on the theater arts and just let the songs speak for themselves.