McHenry native premieres one-woman 'Marlene' in New York Theatre Festival

Cindy Marinangel to portray Marlene Dietrich on stage

As a second-grader at Hilltop Elementary School in McHenry, Cindy Marinangel lost out on the lead role as “Cinderella.”

She’s come a long way since then.

Marinangel stars in the soon-to-open “Marlene,” a new one-woman play about German actress, singer, patriot and feminist Marlene Dietrich, premiering Feb. 19 as part of the New York Theatre Festival’s Winterfest 2018.

Based on a true story and set in May 1960, “Marlene” takes place when Dietrich returned to the Berlin stage for the first time since fleeing the Hitler regime in the 1930s. Dietrich, Marinangel said, is “like Madonna before Madonna, the original bad---.”

Of the role, she added, “It’s my, ‘Hello, New York, I’m here.’ ”

A professional actress, a lifetime member of The Actors Studio – having studied under Mark Rydell, the late Martin Landau, Ellen Burstyn and Alec Baldwin – and a Chicago Second City Conservatory graduate – under teachers Nia Vardalos and Stephen Colbert, among others – Marinangel still remembers well that long-ago grade school play.

“I remember being really disappointed I wasn’t cast,” she said. “My mother had to talk to the teacher because I was so upset. They made me like an understudy.”

The day of the play, someone playing a page was sick so they gave her the script at recess and told her to memorize it. She wrote down the lines and put them under a ski cap. When it was her turn to speak, she took off the hat and read her lines.

“I was always the kid that performed,” said Marinangel, who went on to perform in numerous plays, musicals and dance shows – she’s a competitive ballroom dancer with a passion for Latin dancing – throughout the McHenry County area. She graduated from McHenry East High School, played Rose Alvarez in a production of “Bye Bye Birdie” at McHenry West.

“The beauty of growing up in McHenry is that it was a beautiful innocent town,” she said of her time spent not only in area theaters, but dancing and playing sports – her father was the softball coach – and taking part in all sorts of water activities, living near the river.

She landed her first Chicago audition for “Tony & Tina’s Wedding,” and was cast as a waitress. She’d gone to the audition with a boyfriend at the time, not knowing what the production was all about. “If one of us gets it,” they told each other, “the other person can’t be mad. In the end, I got it.”

She ended up quitting a job she held in neuropsychology at a psychiatric hospital to perform six to eight shows a week. Her witty jokes playing a waitress got her noticed by producers, and she soon became Tina’s understudy, then Tina.

She later reprised that role in Las Vegas and in “Tony & Tina’s” off-Broadway tour. Moving to Los Angeles, Marinangel landed several television roles.

Her deep, unique voice – the result of a fall on a Tinker Toy as a toddler – drew attention. “One of those sticks went down my throat and damaged my vocal chords. I have this voice and it carries,” she said. “I was always the first person caught talking in school, but on stage you can hear me in the back of the room.”

She was selected by the Knowles family to voice a half-hour narration for E! Entertainment called “Beyoncé Uncut.” She also co-wrote, produced and starred in the epic short romance, “Eternal Waltz.”

“Marlene” grew out of a conversation she had with Willard Manus, a writer from The Actors Studio. He had asked her to play Mae West in an upcoming production and she had told him she really wanted to play Dietrich. Two weeks later, he sent her a script for “Marlene” he’d written nearly 20 years before.

“Marlene” shows all facets of Dietrich from her sensuality to her vulnerability to her strength, she said. In the production, Dietrich weighs whether to go through with a live performance despite threats on her life by Nazi sympathizers who resented her for having spent much of World War II entertaining American soldiers on the front lines.

Dietrich is said to have most regretted not seducing Hitler, said to be enamored by her, and killing him to save thousands of people, Marinangel said.

“It’s something that’s relevant today,” she said of the production. “She’s an example of how one person can stand up and defy a nation.”

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