An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin
It could have gone horribly wrong. Thank two lucky stars that it ended up spellbinding. And a lot of fun, too.
Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin are among the most revered performers in musical theater. But for every fan who adores them for their powerful voices and forceful stage presence, there's someone who thinks that they come across as overwrought and egotistical. (I'll never forget the woman I overheard a few years ago giving a succinct review of Patinkin's one-man show of Stephen Sondheim's music: "Mandy Patinkin Celebrating Sondheim? It was more like Mandy Patinkin Celebrating Mandy Patinkin!")
The news that they were collaborating on a concert might have given some pause; would the show be a vehicle for excessive vocal showboating? Fortunately, those fears were unfounded. The show, which ends a week long run at the Prince Music Theater this Monday, is more than just a concert; it's a celebration of the history and richness of musical theater. The two singers don't make any pronouncements on the importance of the material they perform - they don't even address the audience between songs. And they don't let their personalities overwhelm the material, either. Instead, they show remarkable restraint and let the words and music speak for them as they celebrate the drama and comedy in some of the most important milestones in theater history.
They're able to do this because LuPone and Patinkin are, first and foremost, excellent actors. They prove this in the show's two highlights: extended excerpts from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific and Carousel. Sure, we all know the songs - but it's wonderful to be reminded how great the books for those shows are. And so LuPone and Patinkin perform the opening scene from South Pacific - and, unencumbered by accents, they make the desperate longing of Nellie and Emile movingly palpable. Later, they perform the bench scene from Carousel, with Patinkin's cocksure attitude and the sad resignation in LuPone's eyes giving Hammerstein's words added depth. The scene runs over ten minutes, but it'll leave you wanting more.
LuPone and Patinkin also perform extended medleys and pairings of songs that might seem odd - until you hear them. He sings "Somewhere That's Green" (from Little Shop of Horrors), and she answers with "In Buddy's Eyes" (from Follies) - two songs that represent different types of romantic longing. When her anxiety turns into mania in Sondheim's "Getting Married Today," he calms her down with the words of another Sondheim song: "Loving you is not a choice/Not much reason to rejoice/But it gives me purpose, gives me voice." It's not the quality of his singing that makes it such a memorable moment; it's the intensity of her gaze as she watches him sing it to her. This might be "just a concert," but what makes it so great is the acting.
They don't overdo that intensity, though, which is what makes the show such a joy. LuPone and Patinkin are clearly having a ball playing off each other. There's lots of comedy, notably in a medley of "April in Paris" and "April in Fairbanks" in which they perform a hilarious ballet on swivel chairs (choreographed by Ann Reinking).
Both performers are in excellent voice, and are ably supported by bassist John Beal and Patinkin's longtime pianist Paul Ford. LuPone's brassy belt is as powerful as ever (especially on an assured "Some People"), but she comes off best in more subtle moments, like her lovely, relaxed version of "If I Loved You." As for Patinkin, his style makes every note gripping, whether he is singing with deep, plainspoken authority on "Everybody Says Don't" or reaching into a delicate falsetto on "Some Enchanted Evening." Their duet moments are a little tricky; on their opening number, "Another Hundred People," she held notes longer than he did, and they seemed to be singing around each other rather than with each other. But eventually they calmed down, and by act two they were harmonizing beautifully on "The Hills of Tomorrow."
Yes, they do give in to their characteristic excesses at times - he coos like a whippoorwill during "A Cockeyed Optimist"; she sings the last line of "Some Enchanted Evening" as "never let her gowwww." And they indulge their fans by opening act two with several songs from the show that won them their fame, Evita. But in an intimate evening like this, it doesn't feel like grandstanding; instead it just shows how both of these stars made their contribution to theater history. And with this beautifully constructed show, they're making a little bit of history again.
"Filled a gap, I was lucky," sings LuPone as she reprises her most famous role, "But one thing I'll say for me / No one else can fill it like I can."
That goes for both of them.
An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin runs through Monday, October 29, 2007. Ticket prices range from $60 to $75, and may be purchased by calling the Prince Music Theater box office at 215-569-9700, in person at 1412 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, or online at www.princemusictheater.org.
An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin