In my other reviews, I’ve made mention of cabaret as a fascinating opportunity with a name artist. Tonight, it’s just artist and audience, me as me, you as you, and we will share something directly, it seems to promise.
There is a sense of palpable excitement at the opportunity of receiving this vulnerability before the show begins. After all, here we are, gathered to watch the joint cabaret act of two living legends, born into mega-stardom that same fateful night in 1979, or “three thousand years ago”, as one of them will joke later in the night. The stage is simple: a piano, a bass, a table, two chairs, two tumblers. In the back, a scrim. Littering the stage, various colored ghost lamps.
Then, the lights go down, and the piano begins throbbing a driving rhythm, and the light returns. There they are. Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin. The crowd goes wild, and all they have to do to earn it is show up. Without a lick of irony or winking, they launch into Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People”, and we’re full speed ahead for the first act.
At heart, Lupone and Patinkin are yeomen of the American theatre, so they dive head-first into their set, with the sort of intensity we typically associate with Patinkin (he directs the performance as well), working overtime to earn the adulation they’ve already received. This isn’t a song-set, but rather a delicately spun musical theatre evening of vignettes, at least for Act One. Try as I might, director Patinkin (along with co-conceiver and musical director Paul Ford) never let me get ahead of the evening, nor let my focus drift to the point of even wanting to.
The vignettes are alternately sprightly and fun or dramatically rich (often both, because why not), with highlights in the first act including the legendary extended Emile/Nellie scene from South Pacific and all the tunes therein, a sensitive duet of Sondheim’s “It Takes Two” (indeed, every time a Sondheim song came up, my reaction was something like, “Ooh, they’re doing Sondheim! That’s their thing!”) and a rousing, fun closer in “April in Fairbanks”, a song by Murray Grand that’d I’d never heard before but will now never forget thanks to some of the best chair-ography I’ve seen. In “Fairbanks” and elsewhere, choreography is by, oh you know, Ann Reinking. Because why not.
The first act, Phase One of show, finds the duo weaving little character explorations, tied not so much by direct storylines as by emotional waypoints. We don’t get many breaks of the fourth wall, and the ones we do get are spontaneous: Lupone misses the on-ramp to “Getting Married Today” and, with nary a word spoken, raises a hand so as to say let’s try that again, and jumps in once again to careen through the next several flawless minutes.
There’s another moment not long after where Patinkin offers a spontaneous laugh that he just can’t contain after one of Lupone’s gags. The two radiate with the kind of chemistry that only three decades of friendship can ferment. The performers have evolved many Patti- and Mandy-ish quirks and deliveries over the years that bring one to chuckle, and yet I cannot pinpoint a single snicker or giggle in that show that wasn’t wanted. The stars are in full command of their lavish personalities.
Act Two begins with the quick Kander and Ebb number “Old Folks”, before we move properly into what I call Phase Two of the evening: The Stars in Cabaret. Back to back, we get “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from Lupone and “Buddy’s Blues” from Patinkin, in a pair of signature pieces that blow the doors off of the Eisenhower in a way the duo only coyly toyed with in Act One. After spending time with the “actors”, we get to see the “stars”.
And lest I actually manage to get ahead of the evening, it is here where Patinkin and Lupone finally address the audience, share the story of when their friendship was born, and introduce a couple of songs from that show, never named but inherently known to all in presence. Their selections manage to easily top the barn-burners that immediately precede them. It is here that I observe that Patinkin and Lupone have managed to alternately master the powers of excess and stillness, often in the same numbers, for riveting viewing.
There are a few other vignettes that follow, but the centerpiece is arguably the best single scene written in musical theatre history, by which I of course mean the “If I Loved You” scene from Carousel. Once again comprised of several songs, these two don’t dive so much as settle into the characters of Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan, characters that neither of them would ever play nowadays, yet here inhabit effortlessly. After a few moments, Patti Lupone is a young girl, and Mandy Patinkin is a carnival barker, and you never question it. Their performance here is a reminder of the enduring and unspeakable beauty of the writing of Carousel, and how despite years of trying to write Billy Bigelow off as an abuser or a symbol of a bygone society, the depth of writing in the character and the show forces us to keep him with us in collective consciousness.
Cabaret promises the revelation of artists to us. Perhaps the most impressive thing about An Evening With Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin is how much it does so without even the one piece of direct address (well-chosen as it is and highlighted by its singularity). What is revealed is that both Lupone and Patinkin are actors first, professionals of musical theatre, and they take their craft incredibly seriously. They love their Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Kander and Ebb.
Most of all, they love each other. We knew this, of course, but to watch a friendship live and shine in art is a magical thing, and yet another power of cabaret.
– There are 3 more evenings left in their performance schedule. An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin . Feb. 18 – 23, 2014 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater . Performance time, approximately 2 hours. Tickets $$95.00 – $150.00. Details are here.
Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin describing their Evening With in 2011.