Myriam Phiro: Becoming Marlene Dietrich

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Myriam Phiro

Becoming Marlene Dietrich

April 17, 2024

Reviewed by Tracy Adams

Tribute albums can be tricky. The work of most artists worthy of such treatment is already well known, so what can another artist contribute to the conversation? If you stay too close to the original, do you run the risk of sounding like a mimic rather than yourself? If you stray too far, are you really honoring the original?

On Becoming Marlene Dietrich, Myriam Phiro found the sweet spot to avoid either pitfall: There are frequent, loving echoes of Dietrich, but Phiro brings her own vocal sensibilities and fresh authenticity to each track. Deft song selection contributes to this effect; the album includes Dietrich’s well-known hits along with tunes we all know but probably have not heard her sing. Hyuna Park’s lush but restrained arrangements provide perfect support; they created an apt period atmosphere but seem new at the same time.

The album concludes with “Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It)” (Friedrich Hollaender/Sammy Lerner/Reginald Connelly), a perfect example of how Phiro invokes Dietrich as a muse. There is no question that this is not the Dietrich recording; Phiro’s voice does not have the smoke that’s so prevalent in Dietrich’s, and her attitude is somehow more hopeful, less sad. Still, I found myself thinking for a moment that this might have been a recording from earlier in Dietrich’s career. Similarly, “The Boys in the Back Room” (Hollaender/Frank Loesser) was energized with the sass and irreverence of the one we all know, but here it comes from Phiro’s own life experience.

“La Vie en rose” (Louiguy/Edith Piaf) demonstrates that Dietrich was her own distinctive artist, not a copyist of Piaf, much as Phiro is her own artist, not a Dietrich knock off. Several other tracks support this. “Makin’ Whoopee” (Walter Donaldson/Gus Kahn), “I Wish You Love” (Charles Trenet/Léo Chauliac/Albert Beach), and “My Blue Heaven” (Donaldson/George Whiting) are lovely takes on period numbers. When I saw “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” (Pete Seeger) on the track list, I thought, “This must be some other song.” It’s not; it’s the folk song we are all familiar with, but performed by Dietrich and her music director Burt Bacharach and now by Phiro, it takes on a whole new life.

“Lili Marlene” (Hans Leip/Norbert Schultze/Mack David), “Quand l’amore meurt” (Maurice Nouhaud/Octave Crémieux), and “Jonny, wenn du Geburtstag hast” (Hollaender) explain the international appeal that Dietrich garnered and that Phiro should also enjoy.

It’s not a perfect recording. Phiro’s disregard for the melody in the intro of “Makin’ Whoopee” made me wince, and like Dietrich, Phiro sometimes dodges pitch in favor of emotion. Sill the set does a nice job of outlining the many aspects of Dietrich’s career without becoming a documentary, and it makes me want to revisit Dietrich’s discography and to explore more of Phiro’s work. I’m not sure if she’s becoming Dietrich, but she is becoming an artist to watch.

Tracy Adams

A Richmond, Virginia native, Tracy Adams has been singing in clubs around Chicago, where he now resides, since 1989. He made his formal solo cabaret debuts in both Chicago and New York in 1999 and has created 15 new shows since. Tracy is a songwriter as well as performer and arranger, and for seven years was a restaurant reviewer for Gay Chicago Magazine. He is a member of the Chicago Cabaret Professionals and a performing alum of Acts of Kindness Cabaret.