Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 21, 2011
An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin Conceived by Mandy Patinkin and Paul Ford. Directed by Mandy Patinkin. Production design by David Korins. Lighting design by Eric Cornwell. Sound design by Daniel J. Gerhard. Costume design by Jon Can Coskunses. Music direction by Paul Ford. Dance consultant Ann Reinking.
The turning point in this bizarre and unruly retrospective of egos and idiosyncrasies run wild occurs during the section about the show that brought both to prominence: Evita. Patinkin explains his history with the Tim Rice–Andrew Lloyd Webber musical biography of Eva Peron, including how he only agreed to do it because LuPone had already signed, then steps center stage to deliver what had been his opening number, "Oh What a Circus."
As I didn't see Patinkin in Evita, I can't verify that what he does now is comparable to what he did then, but he throws himself into it with invigorating make-or-break abandon. Not just with his entire body, though he steels himself with complete Ché Guevara confidence, and his soul, though he convincingly spits out derision at the elevation of pathetic political figures to a near-godlike status. But also with his voice: There's not a trace of unanchored falsetto, coy attitudinizing, or even bare laziness to be heard. Patinkin displays the raw talent of an actor desperate to prove he belongs where he's gotten, and the electrifying result tells you everything you need to know about both the character and the man playing him.
Everything else about this show is, alas, completely incomprehensible. Patinkin's explosion of clarity and focus is the only moment that either he or LuPone appears visibly aware that there's an audience watching them, expecting to be entertained (and preferably amazed). Most of the time, the proceedings have the depressed energy of a marked-through rehearsal, the kind of get-together designed not to task the fragile headliners too seriously before the Big Night. The specific songs chosen, their content, whatever association the viewer may have with either them or the singer — it's all treated as irrelevant. It plays like a concert assembled in a vacuum and, for the most part, performed in one.
How else to explain why both would mumble their way through the opening scene of South Pacific, with LuPone slurring up and down "A Cockeyed Optimist" and Patinkin catapulting into the stratospheric reaches of his head voice to create new notes in "Some Enchanted Evening" that Richard Rodgers never envisioned? Or why those numbers melt into Stephen Sondheim's "Getting Married Today" (Company) and "Loving You" (Passion) without so much as an applause break? Or why "I Have the Room Above Her" (from the 1936 film of Show Boat) and Frank Loesser's "Baby It's Cold Outside" are considered a natural pairing?
The first act is a cyclone of disjointedness, stirring up interest only when LuPone half-croons the little-known Vincent Youmans–Oscar Hammerstein II "I Want a Man" (from Rainbow) and then joins Patinkin in a mock ice-skating session (on wheeled office chairs) in Murray Grand's "April in Fairbanks." The second act is better, because it gives both something to chew on other than David Korins's ghost light–strewn scenery, though LuPone's "Everything's Coming Up Roses" is no better than when she walked through Madam Rose in Gypsy on Broadway three years ago, and Patinkin's solo "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues" feels like a wispy shadow of the committed (if still unruly) version he performed in Follies in Concert in 1985.
It's unintentionally fitting that they kick off Act II with John Kander and Fred Ebb's "Old Folks" (from 70, Girls, 70), because advancing age is what's wrong: not because LuPone and Patinkin can't do this anymore, but because they can. Perhaps more than any recently made stars, these two have fallen into so many bad habits that they've become stereotypes of stereotypes of themselves. Most musical lovers have joked about LuPone's casual relationship with diction, but actually hearing her mangle a South Pacific line beyond recognizability is sad rather than funny. As is Patinkin's drifting into falsetto so often, regardless of whether it's musically advisable or dramatically appropriate, that the real sensitivity he's capable of demonstrating onstage comes across as entirely gimmicky and false.
One wonders whether the radio mics plastered on their faces are preventing them from projecting themselves past parody. Both performers are so bereft of spirit and spark that using floor mics (or, better yet, no amplification at all) might help them connect with the visceral nature of theatre that once made both so exciting. Neither is bad, of course, and there are times when they're able to prove it: LuPone almost gets inside Kander & Ebb's "A Quiet Thing" and Patinkin touches on the simple pleasures of "Somewhere that's Green" in a workable way. Neither would ever have been right as Julie and Billy in Carousel, yet they bring enough heart to the largely unexpurgated Bench Scene (with "What's the Use of Wond'rin'" and "You'll Never Walk Alone" tacked on afterward) that you can't dismiss everything they're doing.
But seeing how painfully mannered LuPone is when cooing and tut-tutting her way through "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" leaves you questioning whether she was ever as outstanding in that role as legends now lead us to believe, and Patinkin sounds at best mechanically human in "I Won't Dance" or the various numbers culled from Merrily We Roll Along. More often than not, neither seems to know why they're wading through all this mismatched, mostly patter-free material (only Evita gets any), and they leave us wondering about that, too — and a lot more.
Conceived by Patinkin and musical director Paul Ford, and directed by Patinkin, An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin wants to convince us that the duo's mutual affection has blossomed into a kind of theatrical relationship that only a performance like this can consummate. Maybe, but by pointing up so little of what has made these two people great, this show looks like nothing more than a rickety tribute to self-love. Perhaps LuPone's and Patinkin's unique careers and abilities can be summed up in the Sondheimian paean against conformity that Patinkin sings near the end of Act I, "Everybody Says Don't." But the problem with this show is that no one kept the stars from careening by telling them exactly that.