Friday, April 03, 2009

Dynamic Duo

There are times when, to paraphrase Mr. Gilbert, a critic's lot is not a happy one; times when the business of putting pen to paper (oh, all right - keyboard to screen, but allow me my anachronistic imagery) seems as pointless as the final episode of Battlestar Galactica.

This, dear friends, is one of those times.

The problem is not so much the fact that the show in question - An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin - is already over as it is the fact that even if it were still running, anything I could write about it would have as much impact as playfully splashing at the Rock of Gibraltar. Both of these performers have enjoyed so much critical and popular success for so long that everyone who hasn't spent the last three decades on Pluto has already decided to either love or hate them. The first group would take out a second mortgage to watch them do Harvey in a church basement while the second couldn't be dragged to the theater on pain of death. So what the hell am I going to say?

Well, let's start by suggesting that the show should really be titled An Evening with MANDY PATINKIN and Patti LuPone. It was, after all, conceived by Patinkin and music director/pianist Paul Ford and directed by Patinkin. Yes, both he and his co-star have equal time on stage, but it's Patinkin's performance that tends to stand out in my memory. Not because it was better, but because it was so energetic and so often filled with sometimes bizarre (but always precise and controlled) vocal and physical shtick. Hence those capital letters a couple sentences back.

His fans loved it, of course. And even when I didn't particularly like what he was doing with (say) Sondheim's "Buddy's Blues" or "Franklin Shepard Inc", I was still impressed by the sheer virtuosity of it. For me, though, he was most effective when he dropped the flash and simply got to the real emotion behind the lyrics of a song like "Somewhere That's Green".

Getting to the emotional core of a song is apparently Ms. LuPone's long suit. She absolutely nailed ballads like "A Quiet Thing" (from Kander and Ebb's Flora the Red Menace) or "What's the Use of Wond'rin", and was even able to re-create her signature "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" without pandering. Her unfailing ability to find the psychological truth behind every lyric, I think, is what made it so easy to accept her as Nellie Forbush in the scenes from South Pacific or Julie Jordan in the Carousel sequence - roles in which you would never cast her today. She did tend to come a cropper in rapid-fire patter songs like "Not Getting Married Today", but then so did Mr. Patinkin. I think they both need to bear in mind that when it comes to Sondheim, faster is not necessarily better.

The show itself is an interesting hybrid of cabaret and book musical. Meticulously scripted and directed, it re-creates, with minimal staging and spoken dialog, big moments from a half-dozen Broadway shows, knitting them together with snippets of American Songbook classics ranging from the well worn to the relatively obscure. For some, this was probably a case of too much talk and too little singing, but I thought the balance was about right.

That said, I found some of the "one of" numbers to be the most enjoyable. The fanciful rolling desk-chair choreography (from Broadway legend Ann Reinking) that accompanied Murray Grand's "April in Fairbanks", for example, was great fun, and Ms. LuPone's performance of "In Buddy's Eyes" - a relatively neglected number from Sondheim's Follies - was unexpectedly touching.

Paul Ford on piano and John Beal on bass provided world-class accompaniment for the evening. When the stars got a bit ahead of or behind the beat, they brought everything back together masterfully. I would have enjoyed hearing a bit more of them, but given the fact that the audience came to see and hear the stars, that probably was not a realistic expectation.

By the time this appears, Mr. Patinkin and Ms. LuPone will be on their way to the next gigs. You can find out what they're up to at and , respectively.

Meanwhile Cabaret St. Louis, which sponsored the show, winds down its spring season with Lina Koutrakos' intense Torch show April 22nd through 25th at the Kranzberg Center and (by way of drastic contrast) The Worst of Varla Jean Merman on May 14th at the Sheldon. The season picks up in the fall with return engagements at the Kranzberg by Maude Maggart (October 21st through 24th) and Steve Ross (November 4th through 7th) along with first-time appearances by Nellie McKay (November 18th through 21st) and the mother and son team of Bill Charlap and Sandy Stewart (December 9th through 12th). For more information, check out .