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 March 15, 2013

Patti Sings! Patti Issues!

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, I’m Patti LuPone,” says the lady to the packed house – with an as-if-you-didn’t-know tone to her voice.

Did you miss LuPone’s new act when she opened the posh 54 Below nightspot last June? Thank the Lord, you didn’t miss everything; Broadway Records has issued an hour’s worth of the show that’s great and impressive fun.

LuPone’s theme is traveling, and her endeavors to take us around the world are, quite simply, out of this world. She chose an apt opening number in “The Gypsy in My Soul.” It does, by the way, come from a college musical: the University of Pennsylvania’s 1937 50th anniversary Mask and Wig show called Fifty-Fifty. LuPone gives one hundred and fifty per cent on it as you’d expect. But what you wouldn’t have anticipated is that Joseph Thalken has provided some terrifically witty touches in the orchestration. You’ll be nodding your head in both understanding and approval. ‘Nuff said.

It’s often said that when a singer’s voice totally goes, it’s time to face the music of Kurt Weill and the guttural lyrics of Bertolt Brecht. LuPone proves a singer can still have the pipes and deliver the harsh realities of the music and lyrics without sounding ravished herself – especially in “Bilbao Song.” One of the lyrics -- “It was fantastic beyond belief” – is an apt description of how the crowd feels about her rendition, proved by its giving a full half-minute’s worth of applause.

Weill gets the most attention -- four cuts, including the one that starts “When I was a young man courting the girls ...” LuPone doesn’t feel that her being born female warrants a change of words; she’ll sing it as written, and who cares about technicalities? Art first; finicky details later.

We’ve known for decades that LuPone is fearless, but her story of what she did in a movie shoot in Sicily reiterates that. Then she tells us what makes a Sicilian a Sicilian before singing the perfect “revenge is sweet” song to prove her point.

Cole Porter is represented too, in one of the last songs he ever wrote: “Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking,” the opening number of the 1958 TV musical Aladdin. If you haven’t heard it on the broadcast’s soundtrack album, you may have experienced it through Barbra Streisand, who did a lickety-split fast version on her first-ever album. LuPone, of course, is not interested in replicating Streisand’s arrangement, and instead gives a more slow, studied, sultry but equally delicious rendition. Oh, she eventually heats it up, but then she makes it into a jazz classic. Better still, before she finishes, she lets Kander and Ebb get into the act, too.

She sings a rollicking Edith Piaf song called “I Regret Everything,” which is so wonderfully melodic that she knows the audience will be able to sing along with her after a single hearing. And if you didn’t attend the tale of Sweeney Todd when LuPone did it (gulp!) seven years ago, you’ll be painfully reminded of what you missed with her heady “By the Sea.”

Far Away Places is, to use a compliment that was popular during LuPone’s youth, far out. During this title song, she comes out with a joke that shows she doesn’t take herself too seriously. We may never know if writer Jeffrey Richman, conceiver and director Scott Wittman or LuPone herself came up with the gag, but it’s a semi-self-depricating beauty.

LuPone does say that she appeared at the Billy Rose Theatre (“now the Nederlander,” she concedes) in 1971. While I hate to correct a legend, the year was actually 1973 when she was part of The Acting Company – those Juilliard grads who’d so enjoyed performing during their school days that they decided to stay together a little while longer. LuPone and her classmates did five shows in rep from December 19, 1973 to January 11, 1974. Of all the roles she had – Lucy in The Beggars’ Opera, Lizzie in Next Time I’ll Sing to You, Hyacinthe in Scapin and Irina in The Three Sisters, the one I would have most liked to have seen her play is Boy in Measure for Measure.

So would have Ben Rimalower, who must have been at the Broadway Records factory as this album was coming off the presses. If there were a Devotion to Patti LuPone category in The Guinness Book of World Records, Rimalower would be the uncontested champion. Who else has created a one-person show about the legend?

It’s at the Duplex most of this month and next on Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. If LuPone in the 70-minute The Anarchist were still playing, you could have seen the real Patti first and then heard her discussed and dissected later.

Although that double-bill wasn’t meant to be, Patti Issues is a delightful hour by itself. Rimalower takes us from his first experiences hearing LuPone do “Meadowlark” and Evita and beyond. “She wasn’t Mame,” he says drolly. (No, but I still think she could be a good one.)

“I wanted to inhale her,” he said. Like virtually all fan(atic)s, he wanted desperately to meet his heroine – but did he ever dare dream that he’d actually have the chance to work with her? (Well, work for her would be more accurate.)

Is this a cautionary tale of “Be careful what you wish for”? Yes and no. LuPone comes across as nice to the average Joe (and Ben). He substantiates what Lonny Price told me when we once dined. “See that waitress over there,” Price gestured with his pasta-filled fork. “Patti would treat her and everyone else the same way she’d treat the president of the United States or the president of B’nai B’rith.”

Rimalower may not fit in that category, for he is not above excoriating (early and often) the other contender for First Lady of the American Musical Theater. He also “proves” that this well-known legend can’t be nearly as appreciated as LuPone because one fan of this pretender to the throne “doesn’t even know her birthday; he just respects her work.” (Imagine!)

Our storyteller comes across as Charles Nelson Reilly Lite. Despite a somewhat similar persona, he doesn’t punctuate his own jokes with guffaws, but just gives indulgent smiles that both say “Everybody has to go through stages like that” and “I know that anyone who’s bothered to come here will understand.” I certainly did when he said “In school, I majored in buying Broadway CDs.” Yes: there should be such an option at our major universities. Many of us would have had our Ph.Ds in no time.

Patti Issues also reveals some Rimalower issues. His father may have occasionally worn a top hat, but Rimalower makes perfectly clear that the man was a bottom in another area of his life. Shirley MacLaine is said to be furious with Lucky Me, her daughter Sachi Parker’s current tell-all best-seller, but that book would have to be considered a hagiography compared to what Rimalower reveals about gay ol’ dad. Too much information? Nah – the fanciful and offhand way that Rimalower reveals the story makes it not too hot, not too cold, but j-u-u-u-u-st right, as they say in Goldilocks (the fairy tale, not the musical).

But every play must have conflict and Rimalower will eventually reveal that LuPone has a terrible swift sword at her disposal and will wield it when infuriated. The audience gasped – not necessarily because they were reacting to LuPone’s actions, but because they had come to care about Ben Rimalower as much as – well, as much as he cares about Patti LuPone.

Both Far Away Places and Patti Issues brought me back to the first time I ever heard anyone say the name Patti LuPone – on Wednesday, March 3, 1976. I was teaching high school English in Arlington, Massachusetts – and how were things in the teachers’ room that afternoon? More lively than usual when fellow English teacher Carl Hendrickson came in looking shell-shocked. “One of my former students has been nominated for a Tony,” he said. Well, that perked my interest enough to say “Who?”

“Patti LuPone for a show called The Robber Bridegroom,” he reported. (This was the role that called for LuPone to walk on stage stark naked – and, as more than one observer has noted in the years since, she was in no hurry to get off the stage.)

“Patti LuPone was one of my students when I was teaching on Long Island,” Carl said. Then he paused before adding, “She’s the only student I ever had to reprimand by saying ‘You have the loudest and biggest mouth of anyone I’ve ever known.’”

         — Peter Filichia


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