BWW Reviews: Tony-Winning Superstar Patti LuPone Journeys to the OC with FAR AWAY PLACES
If you, dear readers, are anything like me, you too get positively giddy whenever you see a theater-bred or Broadway star moonlighting on a TV show or in the movies.
For the past few weeks, those who have been watching the current season of HBO's polarizing comedy Girls have been given a wonderful extra treat: a pair of memorable guest appearances from two-time Tony-winning theater royalty Patti LuPone, who played a fictionalized version of her real-life celebrity self. The Girls stint was certainly a light-hearted, deliciously self-effacing cameo, which itself was a stark 180-degree switcheroo from her crazy-good role earlier this year on the third season of the hit FX anthology series American Horror Story.
So to witness---and, yes, hear---Ms. LuPone in the flesh back on a stage live-belting the bejesus out of a note (well, several notes, really) is just another not-so-subtle reminder for newbies and veterans alike why she's such a one-of-a-kind, ultra-talented star in the first place. She can, pretty much, take any piece of music and make it sound... well, effortlessly incredible. The results? Jaws dropped. Audible "wows" echoed. Cheers were deafening and plentiful.
That prowess for amazing singing and awe-inspiring theatricality was certainly in full-display on the evening of March 22, when LuPone---backed by a rousing, jazz-swingin' six-person ensemble headed by pianist/musical director/arranger Joseph Thalken---came to Costa Mesa's posh Segerstrom Concert Hall for a one-night-only performance of her latest high-concept concert entitled FAR AWAY PLACES. As the title suggests, the concert---co-conceived and directed by Scott Wittman---was very much thematically-inspired by LuPone's many travels around the world and how the various people and places she has visited throughout her illustrious career has shaped her as a person, as a performer, and as a global citizen.
If you've ever wanted to see LuPone's colorfully diverse arsenal of characterizations---and, yay, accents!---in one sitting, this concert was indeed a most satisfying buffet. Song after song, LuPone rode a roller coaster of moods, from angry, depressed, and wistful, to giddy, flirtatious, and even sexy. And with tongue firmly in cheek, she even humorously compared her Julliard-trained talent for acting metamorphosis to the great Meryl Streep herself (even though the multi-Oscar winner went to Yale... LOL).
Filled with music that traverse many cultures and genres, the rousing two-act concert was very much like a mini master class in the art of musical interpretation. Her globe-trotting repertoire for the evening was certainly eclectic, yet every song was performed with LuPone's signature flair for musical theatricality. When she sang down in a lower register or in quieter, more melodious melancholy, her voice sounded like a gentle caress. When she sang a happy tune, it's mirthfully infectious. When she was playfully jazzy, it was fun to watch. And, of course, when she sang to the rafters as many have come to expect and love about LuPone, you were pretty much ensconced in diva-licious heaven.
Eschewing many of the usual songs that have defined her career on the stage, LuPone instead turned to a mix of unexpected though brilliantly-performed songs themed around travel. She opened the show with "Gypsy In My Soul," a sign of great things to come.
Aside from the lovely title song penned by Alex Kramer and Joan Whitney, her selections included Cole Porter's "Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking," "Madrid," "Nagasaki," "Amsterdam," "Vienna," and, yes, even the They Might Be Giants' ubiquitous geography lesson "Istanbul." Whether a torch song or an uptempo jazz barn-burner, LuPone is an expert.
I was especially moved by her gorgeous medleys: in the first act, she stuns with a triptych of "Ah The Sea Is Blue," I Cover The Waterfront," and "Pirate Jenny." In the second half, she offers up a haunting trio of Frederick Hollander's "Berlin in Lights," "Black Market," and "The Ruins of Berlin"---completing her homage to Marlene Dietrich (she wore a tux for the second act). Beautiful.
She also appears to have a clear affection for composers Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, choosing to include not only the aforementioned "Ah The Sea..." and "Pirate Jenny" but also "Bilbao" and Weill's "September Song." All were wonderful.
Her Broadway fans were pleased, no doubt, by her inclusion of many songs from the theater, particularly from her most recent stints on the Great White Way. Many squeals of delight immediately punched the air once LuPone's Mrs. Lovett-ified accent gave way to "By The Sea." She also paid exquisite tribute to her short-lived but widely acclaimed turn in the David Yazbek stage musical adaptation of WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN with not one but two selections (the latter as one of her many encores). In LuPone's hands, the songs do sound magnificent.
LuPone is also---as her Girls appearances clearly punctuated---quite a droll, funny woman, able to poke fun at herself and held back very little to censor herself to do so. My favorite throw-away bit was her quick "recreation" of her tirade against an audience member and that person's use of a cell phone during her performance, which quickly went viral online during her Tony-winning tenure on the revival of GYPSY. I also loved her "channeling" of Edith Piaf in Bill Burnett and Marguerite Sarlin's "I Regret Everything" and her take on what she calls the "Sicilian National Anthem": an amusing rendition of Johnny Mercer's "I Wanna Be Around."
While many were probably grumbling to themselves internally hoping Ms. LuPone should have revisited more of her signature songs from her career catalog (oh to hear her sing "Anything Goes" or "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" LIVE one more time) I for one was absolutely enthralled by the entire concert. More highlights included "Remember My Forgotten Man," "Me and Bobby McGee," "Travelin' Light," "Hymn to Love" (which closed the first act), and a fantastic "New York State of Mind."
And the icing? Not one but multiple encores... including one sung completely a cappella, without a mic and nothing but heart. The audience was so enraptured, you could hear a pin drop. And she seemed so genuinely moved by the uproarious reception that she acknowledged that her stop in Costa Mesa, California---after much touring with this concert to other cities---was her absolute favorite.
Our reward for being her favorite host city? An extra, much-anticipated encore (seemingly) sung just for Orange County: "Buenos Aires" from EVITA. Now that's how you end a LuPone show about traveling. Happy St. Patti's Day!
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Segerstrom Center for the Arts' 2013-2014 Cabaret Series continues with Jimmy Webb and Maureen McGovern, April 11-13. For more information or to purchase tickets or subscriptions, visit www.SCFTA.org.
Photos by Richard Termine, courtesy of SCFTA.