Sunday 23rd June 2013, matinée
These days, when the term ‘star’ is bandied about like confetti, and is more likely to refer to a celebrity or TV talent show contestant, Patti Lupone, in a week-long engagement at the Leicester Square Theatre, is here to remind us what true star quality is all about. She created the roles of Fantine in ‘Les Miserables’ and Norma Desmond in ‘Sunset Boulevard’, Lucia in ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’, and seems to have played just about every major role in musical theatre in between, with her portrayal of Mamma Rose in ‘Gypsy’ being high on our wish list of shows we wish had come to the West End – youtube clips have to suffice:
Here is a true star with a very substantial back catalogue of work to choose from, and we hear that every night the show was slightly different – clever marketing ploy, or just the only way to fit everything in? A nightmare scenario for Lupone completists, but we were happy just to take our chances on a Sunday afternoon, first making sure we’d disabled the flash button on our cameras.
The show began with ‘warm-up act’ Seth Rudetsky who is host, accompanist and, at times, Patti’s personal assassin – Glenn Close and Madonna, watch out! This man really knows his stuff when it comes to Broadway, and is not afraid to use it to stick the knife in. Host of the ‘Big Fat Broadway’ radio show in the US, he is the perfect foil for Patti, genuinely enthusiastic without being sycophantic. The format is a loosely choreographed Q and A with a disarmingly informal feel, and, at the risk of sounding clichéd, in the small space of the Leicester Square Theatre, it really does feel as if she is singing in our living room.
One of the great things about this kind of show is that there are no frills – no set, no costume, no context for the song except for the discussion. Sometimes, she even got out her glasses and read from the sheet music. Yet every single song tells a new story, introduces us to a new character and portrays a vast emotional range, from childish innocence to hard-won experience. The fact that Patti frequently relied on prompts from Seth only added to the charm of the evening, with the epitome of informal ease being reached when, instead of coming in on cue for ‘With one look’, she let out a walrus-like emission and asked to start again. There’s no doubt that Patti knows how to work an audience, and equally, it was clear the audience were loving every minute of it.
In addition to her musical gifts, Patti makes an entertaining guest, whether regaling us with anecdotes (her account of drowning her sorrows on Hampstead Heath with Michael Ball with an indeterminate drink in a ‘square bottle’ is typical), or making serious points about musical theatre and acting. Asked if she has ever thought of directing herself, she replied that she never thought she was smart enough to direct. But, she says, she was smart enough to know how to manipulate directors. And her willingness to stand up and defend her integrity has been a feature throughout her career. Never better illustrated than when she discusses long-running musicals where the incoming cast are forced to imitate the original cast members because Producers don’t want to tamper with the ‘finished product’. It seems incredible to hear her say that she didn’t know how to sing properly when she was playing Evita, but we sense that this is not false modesty, but a serious point about the extent to which singers can get by without technique in their early years but that it always catches up with them in the end. In an age when new talent seems to be constantly ‘discovered’, chewed up and spat on in a matter of a few years, it is sobering to think that Patti Lupone, at the age of 64, and following throat surgery and a rebuilding of her technique, is sounding better than ever.
We would have been happy to hear her sing the telephone book, but one of the joys of the show was the combination of classic songs and unexpected diversions. ‘Everything’s coming up roses’ went some way to compensating for being unable to see ‘Gypsy’ in its entirety, while we were glad to hear that, having sung ‘With One Look’ a couple of nights ago for the first time since 1994, Patti didn’t wait another 19 years before singing it again. A rendition of ‘Nothin’ up’ from the robber bridegroom’ provided an opportunity for some shameless flirting with the audience, but our favourite impromptu moment was the result of an audience member (who had played Magaldi in the touring version of Evita) making a request – not for a song, but for a duet with Patti. We were then treated to the duet between the fifteen year old Evita and Magaldi, complete with an opportunity for the audience to participate as the ‘angry crowd’, followed by a storming rendition of ‘Buenos Aires’.
We doubt if Patti is prone to false flattery, and during the show she claims to love London (even the food!), so let’s hope it’s not too long before she makes another visit.