In a diva-packed Broadway season, Patti LuPone bursts front and center with “Patti LuPone on Broadway,” a concert staging that meshes all the affection and drama of a homecoming with the brash musical talent that is La LuPone. If the singer’s rabid fans are at all disappointed, it’ll stem from the familiarity of the event — the show is nearly identical to the 1993 Los Angeles concerts recorded and released on a double CD set the same year.
But even that won’t dampen the wildly enthusiastic receptions that LuPone will draw from audiences over the next six weeks. Nor should it: Despite some hit-and-miss between-song patter, LuPone commandeers a Broadway stage like few other performers. A belter in the tradition of Ethel Merman, LuPone can also be a remarkably supple, tender vocalist, with something close to a cry shading her delivery.
Actually, LuPone isn’t shy about letting the cry out, and her dramatic, theatrical style is perfectly suited to the surroundings of the Walter Kerr Theater. In other settings — and before other audiences — LuPone’s emotional reading of an emotional song like the Weill-Brecht “Surabaya Johnny” could seem hopelessly stagy. Here, it’s as fitting as the gilded architecture.
The show is broken into two acts, the first a mix of standards (“I Get a Kick Out of You,” Irving Berlin’s “Always”), novelty numbers (“Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens”), contemporary pop (“Calling You,””Get Here”) and Weill (“I’m a Stranger Here Myself,””It Never Was You,””My Ship” and “Surabaya Johnny”). Although the loss of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” (included on the CD) is regrettable, LuPone adds several Irving Berlin songs (from her most recent recording) that compensate, especially “Lonely Heart” and “Always.” Her powerhouse rendering of Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” is just the note to bring down the first act curtain.
But it’s the second act that really gives the crowd what it paid for — a catalog of LuPone’s own theater hits. Introducing the segment with a lovely version of James Taylor’s “Looking for Love on Broadway,” LuPone moves into her “best of” set with a visual joke — arms outstretched in the instantly recognizable “Evita” pose — that displays her self-mocking humor.
Then comes the torrent:”Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,””Sleepy Man” (from “The Robber Bridegroom”), “Meadowlark” (from “The Baker’s Wife”), “As Long as He Needs Me” (from “Oliver!”), “I Dreamed a Dream” (from “Les Miserables”), a lovely “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” (from “Pal Joey”), and “Anything Goes.”
Especially thunderous applause is reserved for a song that LuPone is singing on Broadway for the first time:”As if We Never Said Goodbye” from “Sunset Boulevard.” LuPone gets considerable comic mileage — perhaps a tad more than necessary — from her famous dismissal by Andrew Lloyd Webber. As with the rest of the spoken material (Jeffrey Richman is credited as the writer), some anecdotes hit their marks, others don’t. At times LuPone seems to be shooting for Bette Midler’s brassy-broad persona, and the effort shows. She’s at her best in the more relaxed moments.
And, of course, when she’s singing. Backed by four top-notch vocalists — Bryon Motley, Josef Powell, Gene Van Buren and John West, known collectively as the Mermen — LuPone is in great voice for the show, and does some especially effective harmonizing with the Mermen on “Sleepy Man” and Berlin’s “Moonshine Lullaby.” Latter song is performed without amplification — which has the unfortunate side-effect of reminding everyone just how annoying the over-miking of Broadway (and LuPone’s own show) can be. “Can you hear me out there?” she asks stepping away from the microphone. “Of course you can.”
Despite an occasional tinniness — which, again, could be from the amplification — LuPone’s six-piece band does well by John McDaniel’s arrangements. Several songs performed with only piano accompaniment prove LuPone’s ability to fill a theater with little assistance. Indeed, the production as a whole seems blessedly under-produced, with no set to speak of and lighting (by John Hastings) that is tasteful, attractive and unobtrusive. The singer wears a simple white jacket and black slacks during the first act, the pants replaced by a billowy black dress in the second.
The production’s understatement — and that’s certainly not to say LuPone’s understatement — presents the singer to her best advantage, proving that happy endings are possible: Patti LuPone is back on Broadway, and there ain’t a dead monkey or flying staircase in sight.