Patti LuPone

June 20, 2012

“Far Away Places”

54 Below  –  June 5 – 23

54 Below has certainly opened with a bang. Patti LuPone’s two-week engagement was a complete sell-out, and now a third week has been added. When I attended, the audience greeted her entrance with abandoned applause, and then proceeded to reward her turns with so many extended ovations that it felt as though it were opening night instead of the first evening of the run’s extension. It is evident from the audience’s tumultuous welcoming reception that they all came in loving her. I don’t know the extent to which their subsequent euphoria was a further manifestation of that feeling or a genuine expression of admiration for, and pleasure taken in, her performance. I do know, however, that my reaction was rather different. Before I go into that, let me pay tribute to the evening’s virtues.

LuPone looks splendid, sounds terrific, and seems radiantly happy to be there. Her patter is apposite, well-placed, and funny (the show was conceived, written, and directed by Scott Wittman), and the humor lands not only because of what she says, but also from her delivery and her charm. The band is exemplary: Joseph Thalken on piano (he’s also conductor and he devised the arrangements), Antony Geralis on accordion and keyboards, Paul Pizzuti on drums, Larry Saltzman on guitar and banjo, Andy Stein on violin and saxophone.

But most significant, some of her interpretations fully warrant the acclaim she’s gotten. From a nicely understated rendition of Johnny Green and Edward Heyman’s “I Cover the Waterfront,” she segues to a bitter and solidly dramatic reading of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Pirate Jenny” (Marc Blitzstein’s English lyric). She brings delicacy and poignancy to Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “September Song.” And “Invisible” (David Yazbek, from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) scores twice: once because it is a strong and interesting song, and second because it shows us that LuPone is not just a powerhouse singer, but also an actress capable of considerable nuance.

Unfortunately, every other selection is flawed—sometimes as a result of infelicitous quirks and choices, more often because of her predilection for hitting us over the head with a song. Indeed, one of my notes reads “Subtle, she ain’t”—but as I observed in the preceding paragraph, she can be. Some of these problems are fatal, others merely regrettable. I’ll elaborate by commenting on each such selection in turn. (These comments are taken from my notes, with only modest editing. Yes, I’m being a bit lazy.)

  • “The Gypsy in My Soul” (Clay Boland, Moe Jaffe) – A big, brassy, ebullient arrangement and performance; very good for what it is, but the slow, measured start to the song promised a more interesting interpretation. [Mind you, if the rest of the evening had offered more contours and contrasts, opening big would have been fine.]
  • “Nightlife” (Willie Nelson) – Another presentational rendition—though perhaps because the lyric is about nightlife, she can get away with it.
  • “Bilbao Song” (Weill, Brecht) – An abridged version; not sure whose English translation she’s using. She doesn’t summon up a feeling of nostalgia, nor does she convince us that she has that feeling; in fact, no real emotion comes through at all. The lyric in which the singer can’t remember the words—often a difficult bit to pull off—is clumsily handled; it takes us out of the song.
  • “Far Away Places” (Alex Kramer, Joan Whitney) – No emotion, no sense of longing. Some crudely indicative gestures: pointing to an imaginary shelf on the phrase “book that I took from a shelf”; waving her hands in the air to suggest craziness at the lyric “strange-sounding names”.
  • “Black Market” (Friedrich Hollaender) – Too big; fails to recognize and convey the cynical acceptance, shared by both buyer and seller, of the state of affairs in post-war Berlin.
  • “Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking” (Cole Porter) – A steamroller; missing is the sense of fun (contrast this with the way Streisand’s rendition plays with the song). Towards the end, the tempo picks up, but without grace, wit, or humor—or clarity.
  • “I Wanna Be Around” (Johnny Mercer) – Her interpretation—a cross between deadpan and dopey bimbo—is meant to be funny. It isn’t; it’s rather pointless. A real WTF.
  • “By the Sea” (Stephen Sondheim) – Peculiar line readings, and crudely obvious gestures—for example, she makes splashing motions at the lyric “with the fishes splashing”; the line would be more expressive if her delivery of it conveyed delight.
  • “I Regret Everything” (Bill Burnett, Marguerite Sarlin) – Not bad, but very big; I’ve heard several other renditions that were more successful (i.e., funnier) because they weren’t so heavy-handed and maintained not just a French accent, but also a tone of late-night self-pitying anguish.
  • “Hymn to Love” (Édith Piaf, Marguerite Monnot; English lyric by Geoffrey Parsons) – Pretty good, but completely external. (For about 15 seconds I couldn’t quite make out the words and thought she’d switched to the original French lyric—but no, it was English.)
  • “Travelin’ Light” (Johnny Mercer, Jimmy Mundy, Trummy Young) – She gives this a nicely observed and gently expressed interpretation, but then interrupts the song to introduce each band member. What’s more, she delivers these introductions with an attitude of giddy glee, which is significantly different from the mood established for the song; when she then returns to the song, she reverts to the original sensibility. If she insists on taking this moment to introduce the band, she should carry the rise in spirit forward to the second part of the song, performing it with new-found joy; that way, we’d have an integrated whole, rather than a song with an intrusion.
  • “Nights on Broadway” (Bee Gees) – A severely limited (musically and lyrically) disco number, but she gives it her all.

“Being Alive” (Sondheim) – Big, but nothing else going on. [This encore had been selected by her fans on Twitter.]


About the Author

Roy Sander has been covering cabaret and theatre for over thirty years. He’s written cabaret and theatre reviews, features, and commentary for seven print publications, most notably Back Stage, and for CitySearch on the Internet. He covered cabaret monthly on “New York Theatre Review” on PBS TV, and cabaret and theatre weekly on WLIM-FM radio. He was twice a guest instructor at the London School of Musical Theatre. A critic for, he is also the site’s Reviews Editor; in addition, he is Chairman of the Advisory Board of MAC.