Seeing Patti LuPone’s “Far Away Places” show in the new 54 Below nightclub (See “New 54 Below Nightspot Brightens Cabaret Scene” in Cabaret section) gave me a rare, special feeling. It made me think of the thrill one used to get just at the prospect of attending nightspot performances by greats like Peggy Lee or Ella Fitzgerald. Artistic comparisons aside, those stars generated a special aura pretty much gone from the current cabaret scene. But contemporary star LuPone conveys that kind of show business charisma. I felt it from the moment she walked on stage to tumultuous applause.
While ripping into her first number “Gypsy in My Soul,” at one point she spread her arms to emphasize the words “My heart has wings,” and she looked as if she could take off and fly, given the energy level of her stunning voice and the power she gives off on stage. LuPone is a force, not just a singer and actress. Every song in her well-chosen repertoire loosely geared to hunger for travel reflected her ability to overwhelm an audience. This lady is a diva, but a diva based on her enormous skill and winning personality, not publicity.
She intersperses her songs with funny asides, as when she referred to the building during the old days of Studio 54, using a play of words on the room’s name 54 Below to recall the “b-low” enlivening the old premises. Going over shows she has performed on Broadway, she referred to being “over here” with one and “over there” with another, then jokingly pointing to her bosom that used to be “up here.” She mined comedy from her Sicilian heritage, playfully mimicking dialect in describing those encountered in a trip there.
I’ve heard the Brecht-Weill “Bilbao” sung many times, but LuPone made it sound fresh, adventurous and packed with wry meaning and vigor. Singing “Black Market,” (by Frederick Hollander), she conjured an underground atmosphere with everything for sale. LuPone had tremendous fun with Cole Porter’s “Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking.” Throughout the show, where appropriate, she would underline a number with bursts of extra power and trademark LuPone-only facial expressions. I don’t know of any singer who can extract more meaning from manipulating her lips and mouth the way she does for punctuation.
The Brecht-Weill “Pirate Jenny” is another favorite of many singers, but LuPone makes that own her own too, going from the subtly menacing to the fiercely vindictive with chilling effect. You wouldn’t want to cross her.
Superb actress that she is, LuPone can raise satire to amusing heights. Bill Burnett and Marguerite Sarlin’s “I Regret Everything” spoofs the down-in-the-dumps French songs of Edith Piaf with hilarity. But she also shows she can score with the real stuff by movingly interpreting Piaf and Margurite Monnot’s “Hymn To Love.”
Reaching into Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” LuPone turned “By the Sea” into an exuberantly funny romp filled with child-like fantasy. A gimmick on the night I was there was to draw one number from suggestions submitted by audience members, and the winner was a request for “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Again, LuPone made this sarcastic number absolutely her own and with devastating effect. She then countered with what she said was her own choice, “Invisible,” from the short-lived musical in which she appeared, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”
As if to emphasize the delicacy and emotional feelings she is capable of communicating in contrast to her explosive side, she exquisitely sang the tender “September Song” of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson.
The performance and the musical arrangements were admirably well-integrated. With Joseph Thalken as conductor, arranger and pianist, the others in the perfectly chosen instrumental combination included Anton Geralis, accordion and keyboards; Paul Pizzuti, drums; Larry Saltzman, guitar and banjo, and Andy Stein, violin and saxophone.
There were other goodies in her repertoire to appreciate, and when the intense show was over, one could revel in having experienced a night to remember with a superstar to remember. At 54 Below, 254 West 54th Street. Phone: 866-468-7619.