Saturday, November 29, 2008

Patti LuPone at Les Mouches

Patti LuPone’s latest release, "Patti LuPone at Les Mouches," is a lively mix of 20 selections from the American songbook, Broadway and pop music, set to terrific arrangements -- some with a Latin beat, some rock -- and given a high-voltage performance. Laced in between is LuPone’s wicked humor and bubbly patter. Add in the audience’s enthusiastic response, and I felt I was right there with all of them in the nightclub.

The performance is actually decades old, but the recording, released earlier this month, has been welcomed by LuPone’s many fans. The CD, digitally restored from original soundboard tapes of her 1980 club act, reached #25 on this week's Billboard Heatseekers Chart, marking the first time in LuPone's career that one of her solo recordings has charted on Billboard.

To listen, you would never know that it’s extracurricular singing. During her Tony-winning run in the original Broadway production of Evita, LuPone spent 27 consecutive Saturday nights at midnight -- following her 8 p.m. performance in the tour de force title role -- at the now-defunct gay disco/cabaret Les Mouches in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. The run was supposed to be only for four weeks, but it won raves and drew such crowds that it kept being extended. This recording, on the Ghostlight Records label, captures the thrill of those shimmering live performances, which were created and written by David Lewis, LuPone’s accompanist, and LuPone.

Most of the selections are standard cabaret fare, juiced up by LuPone’s sassy personality and extraordinary voice. But she does gentle too. I was delighted she included “It Goes Like It Goes.” I loved this song as soon as I heard it in the movie “Norma Rae,” but none of the vocalists whose recordings I have -- and I have shelves and shelves of albums, tapes and CDs -- had recorded it. I never forgot the lines of the chorus: “And maybe what’s good gets a little bit better/And maybe what’s bad gets gone.” It’s a gentle song on a CD that certainly wouldn’t be called gentle, yet it doesn’t seem out of place.

The complete list is:
Latin from Manhattan/I Got Rhythm
I've Got Them Feelin' Too Good Today Blues
Love for Sale
Not While I'm Around/Come Rain or Come Shine
Squeeze Me
Heaven Is a Disco
Street of Dreams
Because the Night
Everything I Am
Mr. Tambourine Man
Rainbow High
Don't Cry for Me, Argentina
Look to the Rainbow
Superman (I Wish I Could Fly)
It Goes Like It Goes
Thank yous/I've Got Them Feelin' Too Good Today Blues (Reprise)
Goodnight Sweetheart

I was wowed by her interpretation of these songs, and I loved her giggly interaction with the audience. At one point she acknowledges an esteemed guest, Stephen Sondheim, and declares that it is “my dream, my fantasy” is to appear in one of his shows. "If this happens I'll retire," she says. I certainly hope she drops that idea now that she’s appeared in two Sondheims. She was fabulous several seasons ago as Mrs. Lovett, the part originated by Angela Lansbury, in the revival of Sweeney Todd. In June she won her second Tony for what is being called the role she was born to play, Rose, in the revival of Gypsy, now at the St. James Theatre until March 1.

LuPone’s power to entertain that is so well known now was just starting to be recognized back in her Evita days. Luckily someone thought to record 10 of the Les Mouches performances. Joel Moss, one of the CD’s producers who worked on the digital restoration and editing, writes in the liner notes about his excitement in learning of the cassettes, “ceremoniously protected in a Thom McCann shoe box in the back of a closet.” “I’ve often thought about the countless historical performances that have been resigned to anecdotal urban legend because no one had the presence of mind to document them in any way.”

Thankfully someone did have the presence of mind all those years ago, so now we too can experience Patti LuPone at Les Mouches. Put this one on your holiday shopping list. It’s a treasure.

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