Todd Takes On… Patti LuPone

Patti-LuPone-photo-Dakota-Jazz-Club-458x291

The title says it all, kids. No time for foreplay. Let’s get to getting…

Patti Lupone: “Far Away Places”
Dakota Jazz Club, Minneapolis
Thursday, 12 September 2013

It’s hard to write about someone so instrumental in your formulative years. Any theatre geek that came of age in the 80s and 90s has a deep personal tie to Patti LuPone and her work at that time. Mostly because she WAS musical theatre at the time. We all grew up listening to her and Mandy Patinkin shouting at each other in “Any Note You Can Sing, I Can Sing Louder” (or as it’s commonly referred to as, the American Cast album of Evita), we saw all the triumphs (Anything Goes, creating Fantine in the original cast of Les Miserables, her scorching Vera in the Encores version of Pal Joey) and the lows (the Sunset Blvd. debacle) to the glorious return with the one-two punch of Sweeney Todd and (finally!!!) Gypsy. So as you can see, it’s hard to talk about a performance of a diva who has been such a part of your life. (Hell, I had to restrain myself mightily wringing my preview of the show for l’étoile.) So I went to The Dakota with some trepidation. Would it meet my high expectations that I’ve had since I was a kid in seeing her in person?

The answer: Oh Hell Yes! Of course there were things that were far from perfect but that’s to be expected in any case and the “imperfections” come from theatre geekery of the highest order. So the short of it: Go! There are two more shows tonight (Friday, 13 September) at 7pm and 9pm! For the love of all that’s holy go! As for the long of it…

One of the great things about LuPone is that she is very much a “singing actress” (you will recall she was in the first class of Julliard’s Drama Division and was classmates with Streep, Kline, and a whole host of others). As she’s taken to doing more cabaret work, she’s built her shows as mini-musicals for her and her pianist (in this case the amazing Joseph Falcon). For “Far Away Places,” her latest one, she collaborated with writer/director Scott Whitman (who co-wrote the musical version of Hairspray). The downside is that the patter can sometimes seem rote and lack spontinaiety. The upshot is that she saved her big acting for where it counted; in the singing.

Opening with “The Gypsy In My Soul,” LuPone was in full voice and sounded amazing. She can still belt with the best of them but it was interesting in that she tailored the belting to fit The Dakota. Her ballads were lovely (especially Joan Whitney & Alex Kramer’s “Far Away Places” and the encores – I’ll come back to them in a bit) and her belting remains impressive as ever (in her thundering take on Cole Porter’s “Come To The Supermarket In Old Peking”). For me, there were several highlights. First was her take on, in her words, “The Sicilian National Anthem;” a wickedly funny take on the standard “I Want To Be Around” which lead to the best patter of the night…

“I can do accents! Meryl and me can do accents! It’s what you learn at Julliard; accents. (Pause) I can’t make change for a quarter, but I can do accents.”

Another patter highlight was in the beginning when she talked about how she was lucky to have been an actress which took her traveling around. If she hadn’t she would have had to have taken a job that allowed her to travel; salesman, and so forth ending with flight attendant. “I would have been a great flight attendant. TURN OFF YOUR CELL PHONE! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!!” (which was Ms. Lupone making fun of herself and this moment of infamy during her run in Gypsy).

By far her best numbers of the night were when she dipped into the music of Kurt Weill. First up was her rousing rendition of “The Bilbao Song.” Then came a fantastic one/two punch of the old standard “I Cover The Waterfront” leading right into Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s masterpiece “Pirate Jenny.” It’s a brilliant combination that brought insight to both songs. There was one more at the end but I’ll come back to that.

Of course, there were a few quibbles. LuPone is an acquired taste and definitely falls into the “verismo” category of sining (to use the opera terminology). While I’m thrilled that she chose to sing “By The Sea” from Sweeney Todd (which would be one of the two recreations of songs from former roles of hers), I was surprised she sang it in the original key and not in the slightly lower key she sang it in when she played Mrs. Lovett on Broadway: the effect left her sounding a little shrill, and not in a fun character way. And while I applaud her performing the hilarious “I Regret Everything,” I was surprised that she talked about her dream of playing Edith Piaf and then launching into “Hymn to Love (“L’hymne à L’amour”). Not that she wasn’t good in the delivery, but she kept evoking that other famous portrayer of Eva Peron and one of her greatest performances (for the non-theatre geeks, that would be Elaine Paige and her Olivier-winning performance in Piaf.

(Side Note To Ms. LuPone: Don’t worry. You clearly won the Reno Sweeney debate.)

After ending her set with The Bee Gee’s “Nights on Broadway” (yes really, and yes, it made me think of this classic album), Ms. LuPone returned for her encore set which was amazing (and a testing ground for new material as she admitted that she was working on expanding this to a two-act concert). First was a fun romp through “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” Then she sang a pair of songs from David Yazbek’s musical adaptation of Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, in which she created the role of the mad Lucia. First was Lucia’s Act Two courtroom song “Invisible,” which LuPone turned into a hypnotic performance. Following that was the Act Two opener “Madrid” which she claimed was only the second time performing that song (to which I say, “Yeah, right.”). For her finale, she ended with a luscious rendition of the Kurt Weill / Maxwell Anderson standard “September Song.” Not only do the Weill songs sit perfectly in all of the sweet spots of LuPone’s mighty voice but also give her plenty of meat for her to act with. If she were to return with an all-Weill program, I would be a very happy man!

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