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Tapping Patti Lupone’s Inner Gypsy

February 4, 2012

A past Lupone performance on PBS.

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There’s a Broadway axiom that says a performer is only as large as the talent she brings to the stage. If that’s true, then singer/actress Patti Lupone is certainly a supernova in a sky full of ordinary stars. Her two-hour performance Feb. 1 at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts displayed a galaxy’s worth of talent bundled up in one small, compact package.

Lupone’s gift is not only her terrific pipes and powerful delivery, but also her exquisite sense of comic timing and song interpretation. The humor, especially, brought her closer to her audience. She only attracted half a house to Overture Hall, but her thousand or so fans made noises so enthusiastic, appreciative and loud that it sounded as if the walls had opened up and the entire city had been let in.

Lupone’s “Gypsy in My Soul” tour—which was being filmed for an HBO “Master Class” series—started, appropriately, with “The Gypsy in My Soul,” a 1930s torcher that has been recorded by everyone from Louis Armstrong to June Christy to Van Morrison. A bevy of hits, familiar and not, filled the first 45-minute half, including a lovely duet of “Sleepy Man” from The Robber Bridegroom with her accompanying pianist, Joseph Thalken.

A humorous turn of innuendo, punctuated by slaps from a riding crop, made Stephen Sondheim’s “Madam’s Song” (“I never do anything twice”) a crowd pleaser. She carried on in a similar vein with a spoof of Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rein” entitled “I Regret Everything.” (“My dental fillings, the red light I ran, even singing this song.”) And she introduced Johnny Mercer’s “I Wanna to Be Around” (“to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart”) as “the Sicilian national anthem.” Based on her hilarious interpretation, you clearly don’t want to be around when anybody breaks Patti Lupone’s heart.

After a costume change, Lupone showcased her greatest Broadway hits during the second half, kicking off with Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from “Evita.” That was followed in close order by Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” from “Anything Goes,” “As Long as He Needs Me” from “Oliver!,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” from “Pal Joey,” and a show-stopping “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from “Gypsy.”

Then the curtains mysteriously began to blow. “It’s Ethyl!” Lupone quipped, an homage to Ethyl Merman who originated the Gypsy Rose Lee role. Unfortunately, a set of fans designed to cool the Madison Symphony Orchestra when it performs at Overture mysteriously kicked in, sending a cool wind into the auditorium.

The disruption didn’t stop the diva, who sailed on through several more numbers to her closer, the Bee Gee’s “Nights on Broadway” with a recorded rock background, and three encores, the last a non-amplified a cappella performance. Even then the audience didn’t want her to leave the stage, such was their captivation. It took the house lights to send the audience on its way.

At a back-stage meeting after the show, Lupone proved as gracious and warm as her stage presence was dynamic. But it was comments from a veteran stage hand that proved even more interesting. The symphony fans that mysteriously blew during the second half are computer controlled and cannot be mistakenly tripped, even if someone was trying to do so, he said.

“We don’t know how that happened,” the stagehand said. “That’s never happened before.”

Maybe the ghost of Ethyl Merman was in the house after all and that was her way of showing her approval of her successor to “Gypsy’s” throne.

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