Reuniting for the first time since their Tony-winning turns in the 1979 Broadway premiere of “Evita,” Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin luxuriate in an evening of sumptuous storytelling. Their medium is the musical output of such legendary tunesmiths as Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Kander & Ebb and Jerome Kern. Patinkin, who also directs, has acquired more grit in his chest voice, in contrast to his far-ranging, ethereal upper register. Yet, his voice blends seamlessly with LuPone’s soaring dramatic soprano, which frequently fills every inch of the cavernous Ahmanson Theater where the concert kicks off Center Theater Group’s 2009-10 season.
Mostly eschewing the usual pattern of grandiose concert highlights, LuPone and Patinkin favor dramatic clarity of purpose. They are abetted by Ann Reinking’s character-perfect chorography and the virtuoso accompaniment of co-creator/onstage pianist Paul Ford (supplemented nicely by bassist John Beal). Displaying an appealing restraint, the duo impressively underscores the inherent drama and comedy within the words and music as they travel through a wide range of musical theater fare.
Set forth as a loosely structured love story, LuPone and Patinkin create endearing personalities who endure the rigors of courtship (opening with a rapid-fire take on Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People”), then tentatively find each other through a hauntingly romantic medley from “South Pacific.” As if jolting herself back to reality, LuPone’s insecure damsel rips though a hilariously manic, “Getting Married Today” (from “Company”) while Patinkin’s courtier calmly soothes with “Loving You” (from “Passion”).
As the performers wend their way through the complexities of romantic partnering, Patinkin and LuPone illuminate how revealing the structure of a song can be. LuPone embodies the calm self-assuredness within Jerome Kern’s “I’m Old Fashioned” and projects the inner peace of a woman finally understanding she’s in love in Kander & Ebb’s “A Quiet Thing.” Patinkin impresses as a nerve-jangled suitor, conveying the droll tension in Frank Loesser’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and Kern’s “I Won’t Dance.”
The two also make viable the unlikely pairing of the comical “Somewhere That’s Green” (Patinkin), from “Little Shop of Horrors,” with Sondheim’s deeply sensitive, “In Buddy’s Eyes” (LuPone), from “Follies,” revealing different aspects of romantic longing. A highlight of the first act is the uniting of the standard, “April in Paris” with Murray Grand’s farcical, “April in Fairbanks,” featuring Reinking’s deliciously staged pas de deux on office swivel chairs.
Much of the second act is taken up with two extended tuner medleys, distilling the essences of the failed relationships of Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along,” and the tragic plight of star-crossed Julie Jordon and Billy Bigelow in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel.” Patinkin offers a tour de force as a rage-filled lyricist who feels he has been betrayed by his partner (“Franklin Shepard, Inc.”), while LuPone is captivating as Julie, who grows into herself during the course of “If I Loved You.”
As the show’s helmer, Patinkin knows to give the audience what it wants, which is a tantalizing sampling of his partner’s diva power. LuPone steps out of the context of the show’s dramatic throughline to deliver a searing first-act closer in “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” then belts her “Gypsy” showstopper, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” in the second act.
Not to be outdone, Patinkin puts his considerable commedia-esque physical and vocal skills on display in the scenery-chewing vaudeville of “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues” from “Follies.”