Patti LuPone is the rare Broadway diva — perhaps the only Broadway diva — who can delight with a sneer as well as a tear, wield a riding crop or fondle a rose with equal conviction. That’s meant affectionately: LuPone’s acidic way with a wisecrack or a comic lyric is a healthy antidote to the full-throttle emotionalism she can bring to her more earnest material. She ricochets between the two modes, with plenty of coolly reflective pit stops in between, in her adventurous new show “Matters of the Heart,” an exploration of song literature devoted to the many trials and occasional triumphs of love.
LuPone has not been vocalizing on Broadway since her last concert appearance, at the Walter Kerr in 1995. That’s lamentable enough; more dispiriting is the fact that this incisive singing actress has not been seen on Broadway in a book musical since her last appearance at the Vivian Beaumont, way back in 1987, in the landmark Lincoln Center Theater revival of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.”
While awaiting a fully staged showcase for her talents (“Gypsy,” anyone?), fans will have to content themselves with “Matters of the Heart,” being performed twice weekly on the Beaumont stage when “Contact” is dark. The concert has been conceived and directed by Scott Wittman, and is adapted from a CD of the same name. Featuring musical direction by pianist Dick Gallagher and the support of a string quartet, it is a departure from LuPone’s previous Broadway concert outing, also helmed by Wittman. That show hewed more closely to the greatest-plus-other-fave-show-tunes format. LuPone and Wittman have, for the most part, set aside the standard songbook for this concert, and the results are often sublime, occasionally odd and always intriguing.
The show is designed as a sort of emotional autobiography — everyone’s emotional autobiography. It begins with a brief acknowledgment of the sunnier side of love: the rollicking duo of “Love Makes the World Go Round,” from “Carnival,” and “A Wonderful Guy,” from “South Pacific.” But Broadway cheer is quickly left behind for darker and more exotic pastures as LuPone delves into contemporary material: Brian Wilson (“God Only Knows”) and Joni Mitchell (“The Last Time I Saw Richard”), alongside Randy Newman, Judy Collins and even — holy Toledo! — Cyndi Lauper, in a quietly rending version of the pop hit “Time After Time.”
LuPone’s voice is a flexible instrument, moving from a caressing croon to a powerhouse belt, and she employs all its varied colors in this repertoire. To the Mitchell song, a biography of a disillusioned romantic, she brings just a tinge of dramatic expression and a dry touch. Although its music is distinctively Mitchell’s, hearing LuPone’s interpretation makes you see the connections between the bruised wisdom of Mitchell’s storytelling and the similarly dry-eyed emotional textures of Stephen Sondheim.
That composer-lyricist is wittily sent up in the comic “Playbill,” one of two strong selections from songwriter John Bucchino, a favorite of many performers on the cabaret circuit. The second Bucchino tune, “Unexpressed,” is an honestly touching song suggesting that affection denied by a lover can find another outlet, “coloring the way we live each day.” It is sung by LuPone with a cool, wistful ardency that characterizes many of her best interpretations here.
The show’s overall tone is on the melancholy side. Its emphasis is not on the familiarly musicalized pleasures of romantic love, but on the trouble taken chasing that dream and the pain left in its wake. “Sometimes love comes right to us,” says LuPone sweetly at one point, “but sometimes we have to go looking for it … like pigs hunting for truffles.” Beat. “It’s called dating.” (John Weidman is credited with “additional dialogue.”)
Sondheim himself fits in nicely here, of course, and the show’s selections from his songbook are highlights, with “Being Alive” from “Company” closing the first act on a high-voltage note, in contrast with the playfully wicked “I Never Do Anything Twice” in act two (avec riding crop). Other show tunes are few and eclectic: a galvanizing performance of “Back to Before,” from “Ragtime”; “Easy to Be Hard,” from “Hair”; and “Hello, Young Lovers.”
But the usual suspects are not missed: It’s nice to hear an interpreter of LuPone’s caliber take on material not usually associated with theater performers. Newman’s quietly heartbreaking “Real Emotional Girl,” for instance, is sung to perfection. LuPone’s wry timing also makes the most of Newman’s “Better off Dead,” a bleak survey of the delights of unrequited love. Maybe the greatest surprise of the evening comes near the end of the first act, when LuPone begins a lullaby-soft song that turns out to be a top 40 chestnut from the ’70s: the Hollies’ “Air That I Breathe.” In LuPone’s softly swooning interpretation, it becomes a tribute to the overwhelming power of love.
Not all the selections are first-rate, or ideally suited to the theatrical environment, the heels and the Vera Wang gown (which is now, apparently, a Vicky Tiel gown: LuPone appears to be having couture issues). And there is a treacly moment or two when LuPone sings a trio of songs devoted to familial affection. But the appealing surprises of the show wouldn’t be possible without the risks taken in straying from the standard byways. The stylistic adventuring fits in neatly with the show’s theme, too: Since when, after all, has the search for romance conformed strictly to the standard byways?