16 June 2012

Miss LuPone at New York’s 54 Below

The deity surveys the faithful.

If you ever doubted for an instant that this is Patti LuPone’s world, and we are just extras, hie thyself to her nightclub act. The great diva is the first headliner at 54 Below, a new venue in the basement of the old Studio 54, which several years ago reverted to its original purpose — theater — and has since become an important fixture on the Broadway scene, with landmark revivals of Cabaret and Assassins, among others, by the Roundabout Theatre Company.

Miss LuPone is the antithesis of Broadway’s current idea of a leading lady. Which is to say that she has her own, highly individual personality. You are never going to mistake her for anyone else who has ever lived. If you have cast her in your show, you are going to have great difficulty replacing her when her contract runs out and she is ready to move on to other conquests.

Now 63, according to the Times, Miss LuPone knows everything she will ever need to know — and more than anybody else — about working a crowd. Her Patti-patter is perfectly aimed and fired. Her voice is eccentric, but wide-ranging and artfully deployed: she’ll massage and pummel notes, diction, and pitch in her interpretative ardor, and yet, as my host observed, she’s rigorously faithful to the rhythm.

Our opinions may vary at times as to what is and is not appropriate material for her — I have avoided hearing her recent performances of Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins with the New York City Ballet precisely because I don’t think the role of Anna I is a good fit for her voice, and I didn’t quite find the material in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown worthy of her — but she’ll get no argument from me over the selections for her current act, an emotional rollercoaster entitled (as if it really matters) “Faraway Places.” She had me howling with laughter, gasping in awe, and — at one point — wiping away hot tears.

I cried for her.

My aforementioned host was Mark Adamo, and it’s always interesting to watch a composer’s reactions to other people’s music. Clearly, on this occasion, Mark was transported, giving his own (silent) performances in response to Miss LuPone. The truly curious thing is that Mark seemed to be under the misguided impression that Miss LuPone was singing to him, whereas of course we all know that she was really singing to me. She is that kind of artist.

She’s named after Adelina Patti, the legendary Italian soprano, but that background explains only a little her fearlessness in assailing classic repertory. She gave us a one-two punch of Edith Piaf, first with Bill Burnett and Peggy Sarlin’s “I Regret Everything,” offered as a hilariously irreverent response to the Little Sparrow’s “Je ne regrette rien”; followed by a heart-melting “Hymne de l’Amour” (in an excellent English translation). She made “By the Sea” (from Sweeney Todd) her own, superior to her own interpretation on Broadway a few seasons ago, and making me forget — for a moment — that I’d ever heard Angela Lansbury or Joyce Castle sing the song.

And, backed up by five musicians, her account of Weill numbers — a rollicking “Bilbao Song,” a ferocious yet ultimately haunting “Pirate Jenny” — nearly forced me to reconsider my resistance to her Seven Deadly Sins, which as originally written is in a key beyond her reach and backed up by an orchestra. But you know what? She’s Patti LuPone. She doesn’t need my approval.

Her prime has lasted a very long time, at least since Evita, but she’s in that prime right now, all right. She sounds better than ever, and she looks fit and feisty. If she’s had any work done, it’s impossible to tell, and really her comfort with who she is — her looks, her sound, her personality, her history* — is a big part of what makes her so irresistibly appealing.

The nightclub itself is a comfortable space, with great sight lines and sound. The mix of quasi-faux-Victorian décor and harsh overhead lighting (turned down, mercifully, during Miss LuPone’s act) suggested to me a cathouse after the police have already raided the place. But it’s a good room, as Milton Berle used to say, and I look forward to my return there — probably when Amanda Green and Ann Harada join forces there on Monday, June 25.

Looking around, you could get the impression that Miss LuPone doesn’t have a lot of female fans, or else the vast majority of thin, well-groomed men in the audience simply couldn’t find dates. Go figure. But I recalled that it was one of the great master strokes of Ugly Betty to cast her as Marc Saint James’ disapproving mother; as I’ve observed, her declaration that “I have no interest in knowing you,” was one that would drive almost any gay man in New York to despair and possibly suicide. We were secure last night that Miss LuPone does love us, nearly as much as we love her, and we hollered and cheered and leapt to our feet with each token she offered. It was a great night to be in New York.

Hold back? What does that even mean?
Why on earth would she — or anyone — hold back?

*NOTE: Miss LuPone even allowed that, had she not been an actress, she “would have made a great flight attendant.” “Turn off that phone! Who do you think you are?” she roared, and we roared right back in recognition and delight.

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