They don’t make Broadway divas like they used to, probably because they don’t make Broadway shows like they used to. This may be why some of the last of the species are dispensing with the apparatus of an entire two-act show this season to take center stage solo (see Barbara Cook and Elaine Stritch — if you haven’t already).
Patti LuPone is flouncing around with a plate of sardines in Broadway’s “Noises Off,” but she took the night off Thursday to join the season’s roster of divas in the solo spotlight, performing a concert at Carnegie Hall that focused on roles she’s never had the chance to perform on the professional stage. Conceived and directed by Scott Wittman, with written material by LuPone and Jeffrey Richman, the concert mixed actual autobiography with funny fantasies of what might have been.
In some cases, of course, the humor came from the performer’s pronounced inappropriateness for the material. It’s hard to imagine the brash, wisecracking LuPone, even in junior high (when she actually performed the role), as a woman whose aspirations culminated in the glory of being an English teacher’s wife, for example. LuPone’s rendition of the “Bye Bye Birdie” song was thus not among the evening’s revelations. Nor, more surprisingly, was her forthright march through “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” despite the seeming closeness of the fit.
Often it was the mismatches that sparked the most exciting moments. “A Boy Like That,” from “West Side Story,” was the comic highlight, as LuPone violently snapped back and forth between florid interpretations of both Anita and Maria. LuPone is no Peter Pan, either, but her “Never Never Land” was simple and touching.
The singularity of LuPone’s persona may have been illustrated by her decision to commandeer a trio of songs from the Broadway divo’s repertoire, to fascinating effect. The second act opened with LuPone swaggering modestly to the strains of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” and continued with a zesty “Trouble,” from “The Music Man,” in which LuPone winningly reconceived Harold Hill as a classic yenta. More daringly still, she concluded the set with the “Soliloquy” from “Carousel,” sung with an admirable specificity that brought out the universal feeling in the song and stripped it of macho bluster.
LuPone did not entirely ignore her signature material and gave her usual authoritative interpretations of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” and Stephen Schwartz’s “Meadowlark” from “The Baker’s Wife” (lamenting that show’s pre-Broadway demise, she cracked, “Why didn’t we just come in and close on opening night at the Martin Beck like we were supposed to?”).
Noting that until last year’s Philharmonic concert staging of “Sweeney Todd” she’d never performed a Sondheim role, she also laid impressive claim to “Losing My Mind” and to “The Miller’s Son” from “A Little Night Music,” despite a brief tailspin in the song’s dense lyrical thicket, from which she handily recovered after a shout of encouragement from Katie Finneran, her “Noises Off” co-star, who was ensconced in a box with much of that show’s cast and crew.
The most thrilling surprise of the evening was a guest visit from Audra McDonald, who joined LuPone to re-create the “Happy Days Are Here Again”/”Get Happy” duet in the arrangement famously performed by Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland on Garland’s TV show (for the curious, McDonald took Streisand’s part, LuPone Garland’s).
LuPone introduced it as a reaction to the city’s trials, and the audience erupted in appreciation at its conclusion, prompting an instant reprise. The singers have wildly different voices — LuPone’s steely Broadway belt has a vibrato to set the floorboards humming, while McDonald’s is a more classically beautiful instrument — but their musicianship came together with gorgeous ease, cementing the evening as one to store in the memory bank for frequent future savoring.