All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Younger generations of theatergoers must regard Patti LuPone the same way I think of Ethel Merman or Mary Martin. With other combinations like Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera, or Liza Minnelli and …well…Chita Rivera, Ms. LuPone and Bernadette Peters are the ranking superdivas of their time.
LuPone, though diminutive, stands as tall as any of the above, or Carol Channing, or Angela Lansbury, when it comes to sheer talent and ability to entertain on the grandest of scales. She is a musical theater star without parallel because in addition to exhibiting a strong, versatile, expressive voice and a emotional range that can break your heart with a ballad or earn honest laughs with a comic ditty, she is a beguiling and confident actress.
Ample evidence of all of Ms. LuPone’s artistic gifts is available at Morgan’s Cabaret at the Prince Music Theater where, for all too brief a time, Patti is showing her show business savvy in an intimate setting that lets you link with her and enjoy her zest for music, theatricality, various song styles, and life close-up. Her show, “Faraway Places,” is a joy from its first number, “Gypsy in My Soul,” to the final selection of a three-part encore, “Invisible,” her aria from David Yazbek’s 2010 Broadway musical, “A Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” Musically and vocally, LuPone is at a peak, and the proximity to her only heightens the intensity and excitement of her cabaret turn.
Decked out in white tie and tails. LuPone defines swank of a different era. Her eyes fastened in turn on random people in the audience, her phrasing pitched to bring out the wit in every number, she delivers a glossy show that remains personal even though Patti rarely speaks to the crowd, preferring to move stylishly from song to song, accompanied expertly by pianist Joseph Thalken (who also happens to be adorable).
In the few minutes of patter, written by “Hairspray” lyricist Scott Wittman, LuPone tells us that one of the best byproducts of her career is the chance to travel, to pack up and see the world. She says that if she hadn’t been an actress and on call to tour or perform wherever, she would have been a stewardess or taken some other job that would get her away.
Her song selections celebrate the world and its major cities. She moves without skipping, or missing, a beat to the haunting tunes of Kurt Weill to the fast paces of Cole Porter and Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon’s wonderful 1953 swing riff “Istanbul (not Constantinople).” For changes of pace, she wistfully croons the title song from her show, Joan Whitney and Alex Cramer’s pop hit for Perry Como, “Faraway Places,” or goes into the only other number besides “Invisible” she did in a Broadway show, “By the Sea,” from “Sweeney Todd,” accent and all. (Patti says she loves accents, “like Meryl.”)
LuPone’s show is high energy. Patti keeps things moving briskly from the time she hits the stage or the moment she bounces off. The speed and spirit of the show leave plenty of opportunity for wit, nuance, and subtlety. LuPone is playful. She’ll slide easy and slow through one chorus of Porter’s “Supermarket in Old Peking” before swinging it with gusto in a breath-defying pace. On several occasions, Patti demonstrates deft speed of diction, dashing off tongue-twisting phrases with at a rate that would stun Henry Higgins’s Arabians and with a clarity that conveys every meaning of every word to the audience. Patti is so sly at playing the “what is the word?” sequence of Weill’s “Bilbao Song,” you think she may really have forgotten the lyric and want to feed her the line.
Weill is an obvious LuPone favorite. One of the top 10 on my smart phone is her rendition of the composer’s “I’m a Stranger Here Myself.” That song is not heard in “Faraway Places,” but four other Weill tunes are done with skill and affection. One is the aforementioned “Bilbao Song” from “Happy End,” which LuPone sings with a lilt that expresses the fun people had at a broken down Spanish beer hall before some bourgeois fixed it up and turned it middle class. From the same show, she moves from Bertolt Brecht’s bonhommie and sarcasm to his poetic side with Weill’s gently flowing “ah, the sea is blue, so blue” chorus from “The Sailor’s Tango.” The softer, yet plaintive Weill flourishes again in LuPone’s elegaic rendering of “September Song,” written with Maxwell Anderson from “Knickerbocker Holiday.” The hard staccato of much of Weill’s work with Brecht is heard in an affecting well-acted “Pirate Jenny” from “The Threepenny Opera.”
Edith Piaf also receives a tribute. And a send-up as LuPone roars with amusing crankiness through a cynical parody of Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” called “I Regret Everything” by Bill Burnett and Peggy Sarlin.
Acting is important to LuPone’s presentation of songs. She elicits meaning and emotion because, while she remains studiously true to the music as written, she is so good at putting a character behind lyrics and expressing them so they become stories.
“Faraway Places” brings out the best in cabaret, the art form that makes you feel most at one with a performer. It is Broadway bright, has sophistication and variety that accents the tinkle of ice cube effect of a nightclub, takes you past context so you can listen to each song on its own an appreciate its individual merit or entertainment value, and is performed with aplomb that is professional and polished while being warm and personal. LuPone is not the only star. Joseph Thalken is as much a partner as an accompanist, and his combination of taste and dash add to LuPone’s show.
In her white tie and tails, Patti LuPone throws a great party. Style and artistry come dolloped with sass and fun. Patti is in full command of her talent and is using it to give you a rollicking good time. Like a good diva should.
Patti LuPone: Faraway Places runs through Saturday, Nov. 23 at Morgan’s Pub at Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tickets can be ordered by calling 215-893-1955. Morgan’s Cabaret shows have a $15 minimum. Food and drink are served only until 7:30.