Since 1999, Tony Award winner Patti LuPone (Evita, Anything Goes, Noises Off) has performed her show Matters of the Heart across the country, as well as in Australia and at London's Donmar Warehouse. With a song list somewhat different from the studio recording of the show released in September of 1999, Matters of the Heart is playing at the Byham Theatre through February 20.
This is a great-looking, polished, fun evening with an eclectic list of songs. LuPone's singing style may divide the population of music fans, but she delivers triumphantly here, though still with her well-known mannerisms. The excellent accompaniment by musical director Chris Fenwick on piano and a quartet of string musicians, as well as the elegant set and lighting (John Hastings), contribute to the lush feeling. Scott Wittman, who conceived and directed the show, has assembled an interesting mix of ballads, up-tempo songs and comedy (through song and patter) which covers the many ways love affects our lives. The show is dedicated to its talented musical arranger, Dick Gallagher, who passed away on January 21.
Whether you love LuPone's style, which includes muddy diction and unusual song interpretation, or you find it distracting, in this show her charisma and passion override those characteristics in a way that will make most anyone forgive a few blurred lyrics. Matters of the Heart's theme is, naturally, love. LuPone tells us the songs represent many aspects of love, from first love to lust to a mother's love, with all the joy and misery in between. Including a mix of show tunes, pop songs and cabaret specialties, the program flows well, with twenty-six pieces presented comfortably and without a slow moment. The pop songs are mostly presented in styles differing from their classic presentations. For example, "God Only Knows" (with a string solo), "Alone Again (Naturally), and "Air That I Breathe" (a dreamlike interpretation, accompanied only by piano) become new songs, with unfamiliar rhythms, though the interpretations are very poignant and appropriate for this show. LuPone stated in an interview that, "Someone was talking about how they heard the lyrics for the first time, and I think in the case of some of these songs, what we usually hear is the beat"; these new interpretations do expose the lyrics more through a lighter treatment. Some of the musical theatre songs also receive new treatments, in particular Rodgers and Hammerstein's "A Wonderful Guy," in which the phrasing is quite unusual.
Highlights of the evening can be found in LuPone's solid and natural delivery of comedic patter and comic songs; she seems to really enjoy these moments and loves getting laughs from the audience, especially on the more bawdy witticisms. Her "Shattered Illusions" (by Adele Anderson and Dillie Keane) and (what she calls the Sicilian National Anthem) "I Wanna Be Around" (Johnny Mercer and Sadie Vimmerstedt) are hilarious and allow her to show how she can do much more than just stand and sing a song. On the other hand, she can also present a traditional ballad in a most effective way. The beautiful "Unexpressed" (John Bucchino) and stirring "Back to Before" (Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty) are presented in a very heartfelt manner.
LuPone quickly develops a relationship with the audience. She locks eyes with individual audience members and speaks in a conversational tone when telling anecdotes about her own life and loves. This manner, and the great respect she shows her musical accompanists as well as the genuine gratitude she shows in response to the audience's expressions of appreciation, make for a very warm and intimate evening. Patti LuPone delivers for her followers and creates many new fans in this rich and well-performed production.