An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin: Theater Review

Patti LuPone Mandy Patinkin Broadway - H 2011

Patti LuPone Mandy Patinkin Broadway - H 2011

Inbuilt affection for these two storied Broadway performers might keep the most adoring fans smiling, but the uninitiated will be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is about.

The two performers share stories about their days co-starring in "Evita" and perform condensed renderings of "South Pacific," "Merrily We Roll Along" and "Carousel" during the two-hour set.

NEW YORK -- You gotta love Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin. No, really, you gotta absolutely love them to be anything but underwhelmed by this lazily conceived valentine. As generic as its title suggests, An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin coasts along on the two performers’ relaxed humor and genuine fondness for each other. But it rarely goes anyplace personal or revelatory.

Directed by Patinkin and hatched by the performer with music director Paul Ford, the show was first staged in 2002. It has been playing stops in U.S. cities and abroad in various incarnations on and off since then, only now reaching New York. Far from Broadway, it’s probably thrilling to see two stage greats ransack the musical-theater vaults. But even if the press-night crowd responded effusively, home-turf audiences have a right to expect some effort. Loosely stitched around the prosaic thread of love in its many permutations, and backed by two musicians on piano and bass, this is an intermittently charming cabaret act, without the benefit of martinis and crabcakes.

Midway through the second act of the two-hour set, Patinkin recalls auditioning for the part of Che and being cast alongside LuPone in the 1979 Broadway premiere of Evita. They then take turns doing their big numbers from the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice smash -- respectively “Oh What a Circus” and “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” The frisson of their history with the material and its role in the genesis of their friendship, together with both singers’ enduring vocal command, provides the show’s most substantial jolt. When LuPone’s arms shoot skyward in the iconic Eva Peron pose, the theater becomes a house of worship.

But that’s pretty much the extent of their direct engagement with the audience or with the milestones of their careers in this curiously remote confection. There are no anecdotes, no insights. There’s no Sunday in the Park With George from Patinkin, no Les Miserables, Anything Goes or Sweeney Todd from LuPone. Her rendition of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from Gypsy is a walk-through compared to the still-blazing memory of her ferocious turn in that show in its last Broadway revival. Inevitably, great theater songs lose some of their impact out of context, but this just has a dispiriting business-as-usual feel.

It’s a pleasure to see LuPone in mellow mode on gentle songs like “A Quiet Thing” from Flora, the Red Menace. And the duo do some cute quasi-dance moves on swivel chairs in the fun comic number “April in Fairbanks,” from New Faces of 1956. But that hardly makes for an electrifying show.

The bulk of the lineup is given over to condensed renderings, complete with dialogue, of three musicals: South Pacific, Merrily We Roll Along and Carousel. Given both performers’ associations with the work of Stephen Sondheim, the Merrily suite yields some lovely moments. The excursions into Rodgers & Hammerstein are less fruitful, beyond the novelty value of LuPone stepping outside the perimeters of her normal stage persona to play Nellie Forbush and Julie Jordan.

Often, the performers are showcasing their own vocal mannerisms rather than mining the songs for meaning. LuPone’s choppy phrasing can grate; ditto Patinkin’s characteristic flights of emotionally overwrought falsetto. It’s fair to say that Patinkin is at his best and worst slathering on vaudeville shtick in “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues” from Follies, which he performed in the starry 1985 Lincoln Center concert staging. But too many great songs -- including the opener, “Another Hundred People” from Company -- are either mangled or passionlessly dispatched.

There’s a pleasing delicacy to the pared-down musical arrangements, even if they do seem more suited to an intimate cabaret room than a Broadway house. And David Korins’ spare set design – a bare stage with multicolored ghost lights sprouting like poppies – has an evocative simplicity. In terms of overall shape and thematic cohesion, though, this grab-bag show is lacking. For musical-theater nuts, hearing these two veterans sing will never be a chore. But here, disappointingly, it’s also no great reward.

Venue: Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York (runs through Jan. 13)
Cast: Patti LuPone, Mandy Patinkin
Director: Mandy Patinkin
Concept: Mandy Patinkin, Paul Ford
Set designer: David Korins
Costume designer: Jon Can Coskunses
Lighting designer: Eric Cornwell
Sound designer: Daniel J. Gerhard
Music director: Paul Ford
Dance consultant: Anne Reinking
Presented by Staci Levine, The Dodgers, Jon B. Platt, Jessica R. Jenen