Matters of the Heart
Last week we asked Robin Kyin to check out Patti Lupone's concert tour in Philadelphia. Here's his report:
"Wearing nipple clamps and bows in his pubic hair, he handed me a whip and said, 'beat me there!' and asked me to sniff my underwear!" Whoa! This isn't typical Patti Lupone material, I thought to myself upon hearing that line from a comedic number performed early in the show.
Last Sunday I was fortunate enough to catch the last performance of Broadway great, Patti LuPone's two-week stint here in Philadelphia at the Prince Music Theatre. This was the first time I was seeing LuPone sing live. (I had seen her in David Mamet's The Old Neighborhood a few years ago on Broadway but that was a play and it didn't showcase her phenomenal Evita voice.) Just in time for Valentine's Day, the show is part of her Matters of the Heart tour and features the same material presented on her new album of the same name. If you have her "Patti LuPone, Live" CD, you're familiar with her old act; one that I eventually saw on PBS. While that act was a "greatest hits" show of some sorts, the theme this time around is plain old love -- heartbreaks, lust, puppy love, happy endings, love gone wrong (strangely enough, parental love is included too) you name it, she sings it.
Backed by a string quartet and a piano played by musical director, Dick Gallagher, LuPone sang a mixture of showtunes and modern material. About 60% of the show is non-Broadway material and while they were pleasant, the audience clearly preferred classic material as they seemed to wake up with enthusiastic applause each time a familiar tune was sung. The show began softly with Gallagher playing the familiar strains of "Storybook" from The Scarlet Pimpernel. Patti came out to excited applause and began the Wildhorn/Knighton song, which she put in a medley with "Love Makes the World Go 'Round," from Carnival. The opening section featured soft songs ranging from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "A Cock-Eyed Optimist" to Lennon and McCartney's, "It's For You." However, the moment that most of us in the audience were waiting for was when she would crank up her voice to full throttle, and that first came in "A Wonderful Guy," from South Pacific. The song is, of course, vintage Rodgers and Hammerstein saccharine. ("I'm in love, I'm in love, I'm in love, I'm in love with a wonderful guy") LuPone chose to sing a slowed down version and in doing so, brought an uncanny genuineness to it. Usually that final line, as pleasant as it is, sounds hokey, but she slowly built the song up, and in her soaring voice, the line sounded absolutely thrilling and believable.
It was amazing to see how effortlessly LuPone slides back and forth between the two faces of drama. At one instant she can have the frowning tragedy mask on and in another, she can switch to the smiling comedic one. "Shattered Illusions," the number from which the kinky line from above is taken, was a humorous lamentation of the frequent mismatch that occurs between looks and personality. She had great fun with the song and the audience, clowning around onstage as she acted out each scenario. Not too long after that, LuPone was back in the dramatic mode when she turned her voice up full throttle again for an intense rendition of Sondheim's "Not a Day Goes By." She ended the first act with another Sondheim song, her infallible "Being Alive." Boy, could this woman project or what! I imagined her voice like gushing water, bursting out of a crack in a water main. It just shot out into the audience and sprayed every ear with the same intensity. When she finished the song the audience clapped wildly, and generously, fully appreciative of receiving one of her standards even though this show was supposed to be new material.
Don't think that she can't do anything soft though. Her first act was full of pleasant soft, quiet songs and the entire middle section of her second act was dedicated to parental love with songs like "Real Emotional Girl" by Randy Newman and "My Father" by Judy Collins. I didn't think they fit all too well, but that didn't matter because it's always a treat to see LuPone do her whole dramatic "thing." (If you like Patti, you know what I'm talking about!). For her eleven-o-clock number, she chose one of the best-written songs in recent times: "Back to Before" from Ragtime. Dick Gallagher should be praised here for a fantastic job at the orchestrations. The combination of merely the piano and string quartet was adequate to recreate the full orchestra and full background chorus sound of that song we are so used to hearing on the Ragtime CD. The song is perfectly suited for the power-lungs of LuPone and she handles the song just as easily as Marin Mazzie did.
She wrapped up the show but it wasn't over yet. She came back out for a few encores. The regular show was scripted by John Weidman. I was appalled at how cheesy it was considering the fact that this man has worked on Pacific Overtures, the 1988 Anything Goes and Assassins. The speeches and intros to each song were full of cheap jokes and overly sentimental reflections. Amazingly, it wasn't until the encores, when Patti was on her own, that a level of total comfort was reached with the audience. She introduced her first encore song, "If It's Magic," by simply explaining to us what a big fan of Stevie Wonder's she is. We believed it and listened attentively. She finished, then she explained that the next song was a request from one of the members of the string quartet; that it was from one of the first shows she saw. ("Easy to Be Hard" from Hair.) "It's from Hair and I'm going to start stripping soon!! It's been a while so go ahead and shout out the lyrics if I forget them!" This innocent banter with the audience was received much, much better than the forced humor of show's script and it was really disappointing that it came at the end of the show. It felt like we finally got to know her in the last 15 minutes of the show and now she was leaving. One should never try to script Patti LuPone! She's such a natural performer; one of those people who so needs to live and breathe off of the energy of an audience that if you just stick people in front of her, she radiates. To all the people who get to see her sing "The Worst Pies in London" this May in Sweeney Todd, my jealousy wishes you nothing but ill will! I can just imagine how perfectly her voice and personality will fit that role and it will be a real treat for all of you.
See you Thursday!
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