MAIN STEM LEGENDS TEAM UP TO PUT ON A SHOW
By HENRY EDWARDS
In the fall of 1979, when the Andrew Lloyd Weber/Tim Rice pop-rock opera "Evita" debuted on Broadway, it brought with it a pair of razzle-dazzle actors delivering star making performances, the musical's Eva Peron, Patti LuPone, and Che Guevara, Mandy Patinkin.
In his short story, “Star Quality," Noel Coward defines star quality as "something very great indeed – something abstract that is beyond definition and beyond praise . . . magical and unmistakable . . . the hair will rise on your addled little head, chills will swirl up and down your spine and you will solemnly bless the day that you were born."
That is precisely the effect LuPone and Patinkin achieved in "Evita." Both went on to earn Tony awards for their portrayals and to launch impressive careers as musical theatre stars, dramatic actors and concert artists.
Although the duo never shared the stage in another musical, ten years ago, they got around to teaming up to perform a concert evening in Texas. Since then LuPone and Potenkin have periodically performed versions of the Patti and Mandy Show in the United States and in Australia.
And now, at long last, they have installed their recital to Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theater for 63 performances (through Jan. 13).
Teams traditionally seem to be a case of opposites attracting. Yet LuPone and Patinkin most decidedly are no odd couple. Far from it. If anything, the stars resemble twins who have been reunited after being separated at birth.
Bristling with intensity, volatility and volume, each encompasses an impassioned performing style that transforms fans into fanatics, those who love them and those who dismiss them as hammy and bombastic.
In 1989, Patinkin launched a solo concert career that led to three musical evenings on Broadway, “Mandy Patinkin in Concert,” “Dress Casual” and “Mamaloshen.” In each, minimalism was the key, and the choice worked brilliantly. Patinkin's rampant theatricalism negated the need for a large orchestra or ornate production values unnecesssary.
“Patti/Mandy,” conceived by Patinkin and his longtime musical director Paul Ford and directed by Patinkin, proves to be another textbook example of stage minimalism.
The stars (who, to no one's surprise, are dressed in black) appear on an almost bare stage populated only by a series of forlorn ghost lights. In addition to Paul Ford on piano, the “orchestra” contains only one other player, bassist John Beal. Other than Patinkin recalling how he met LaPone, there is absolutely no dialogue.
Despite LuPone’s bravura performances as Evita, Reno Sweeney, Mrs. Lovett and Madam Rose and Patinkin’s blazing efforts in “Evita,” “Falsettos” and “Sundays in the Park with George,” the headliners have gone out of their to offer lifesize representations of themselves. Cheerful and user friendly, they clearly adore each other and appear to be dedicated, hard working pros. If anything, "Patti/Mandy" has the feel of an informal advanced acting class.
At the same time, it appears that Patinkin has staged every second of the evenin, honing each gesture and facial expression so that nothing seems too big or too much a part of show business. A serious aesthetic is at work here, and it's more than likely that aestshetic belongs to Patinkin.
Primarily utilizing duets, the stars sketch the history of a relationship, beginning with a truncated version of the Rogers and Hammerstein's “South Pacific.” Two hours later, a Stanislavsky driven series of excerpts from R&H's “Carousel” brings the evening to a conclusion. In between the duo sings Irving Berlin, Kander and Ebb, Jerome Kern, Lloyd Webber and lots and lots of Stephen Sondheim. Terrific actors, they treat these songs with the respect and concentration accorded dramatic monologues.
Along the way, LuPone is allowed only two “greatest hits,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Patinkin's big moment arrives when he rips into the opening number from “Evita,” “Oh What a Circus.”
As far as the audience was concerned, it did not matter that the stars were determined to go out of their way not to go for broke, and their efforts were greeted rapturously.
“Patti/Mandy” generated mostly favorable responses from the critics who declared the show “smart, warm, deeply satisfying,” “intimate and goofy, touching and confident” and filled with “smiles and bonhomie and friendship and genuine affection.”
One naysayer dismissed the show as “a torpid affair." Another labeled it a “lazily conceived valentine.”
In the theatre, small-scale evenings tend to be viewed as classy and ultraprofessional while show business extravaganzas are often dismissed as pandering vulgarities. Thus by damping down the stardom of its stars, "Patti/Mandy," for the most part, automatically triggers a respectful response. As for those audience members who expected the stars to dish about their careers, they are simply out of luck. That leaves them with one alternative, reading "Patti LuPone: A Memoir," recently published in paperback, in which the star gleefully tells all.