To be excited by Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin’s show, you need not know that their first performance together, in “Evita”, made them both stars, and that it has taken three decades to get them back together on Broadway. You don’t even need to know who they are. Indeed, such ignorance could actually help. I brought a friend to “An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin” who was visiting from abroad; had never heard of either of them; recognized only two of almost three dozen songs (their two big hits, as it happens, from “Evita”); did not know about the musicals from which the other songs were taken — not even “South Pacific” or “Gypsy” – and loved it all.
Those who know them and find them annoying are not likely to be won over by this show; they would surely level their usual criticism, that their performances are mannered, and find a new one – that their presentation is too disjointed. But even their most devoted fans might see their choice of material as outright quirky. LuPone does not sing a single number from her star vehicles “Anything Goes,” “Sunset Boulevard” nor “Les Miserables”; and only one from “Gypsy.” Patinkin has nothing from “Sunday in the Park With George.”
Yet this show conceived by Patinkin and pianist Paul Ford, and performed around the country intermittently since 2002, could offer a lesson or two to other concert-like Broadway shows, maybe even to the Tony Awards broadcast. There is no trite patter; Patinkin offers only one brief and affecting reminiscence, about how he and LuPone first worked together. But there is plenty of conversation. It is all dialogue taken verbatim from various musicals, with a focus on three — Rodger and Hammerstein’s”South Pacific” and “Carousel,” and Sondheim’s”Merrily We Roll Along” — woven carefully around the songs.
There are stray obscure selections, such as “I Want A Man” from Vincent Youmans and Hammerstein’s “Rainbow” or even more weirdly “April in Fairbanks,” written by one Murray Grand for “New Faces of 1956,” the only song that is accompanied by something resembling choreography (and credited to Ann Reinking) – the two push around some office chairs on wheels.
Most selections are better known (although you would have to know what they are already, or carry a little flashlight to look at the Playbill; none were introduced.) There are songs from a half dozen other Sondheim shows besides “Merrily We Roll Along,” including more than one from both “Company” and “Follies.”
There are also familiar melodies by Jerome Kern, Kander and Ebb, Julie Styne, Frank Loesser. But even the stray oddities fit in with the general theme, which is love. Providing scenes around the songs is such a fresh approach for what is essentially a revue that it does not really matter that these two performers would not be cast in most of these roles. LuPone, now 62, is no Nellie Forbush or Julie Jordan ingénue. But they are not so much playing different characters as assuming different moods. There are few singers who have the acting chops of these two, and it is simply a smart move not to divorce the songs completely from their original context, the way, say, “Sondheim by Sondheim” did.
Accompanied only by Paul Ford at the piano and John Beal on bass, with a set made up of a couple of chairs and an artful arrangement of ghost lights (those lights left on stage after a show is over), the two veteran entertainers dress in simple concert black, without any costume changes. Their act is so modest that you wonder what kind of mystical hold that Patinkin, who is also the director, has over his co-star. (It briefly occurred to me that maybe when he was giving his little speech about how they met, he was holding her shoulders tightly just to make sure that she shut up.) Then you re-read a passage from her memoir, in a chapter entitled “Evita, Part I”: “Through it all Mandy Patinkin was my ballast, my savior. Whenever I was onstage with him, not only was there great respect and love crossing the boards from one actor to another, one friend to another, he also saved my ass. Whenever he saw that that I was tied in a knot, he took me by the shoulders.” (!). “He said some sage things and kept me on stage. For that I will be forever grateful to him. Beyond grateful. Mandy is an angel for me; he was heaven-sent. I will love him forever.”
You can see why the theme of “An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin” is love.
An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin Ethel Barrymore Conceived by Mandy Patinkin and Paul Ford; directed by Mr. Patinkin; with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin; production design by David Korins; lighting by Eric Cornwell; sound by Daniel J. Gerhard; costumes by Jon Can Coskunse. Running time: Two hours, including intermission. Ticket prices: $76.50 to $131.50. Premium price as high as $276.50. Rush Tickets: $26.50 An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin is set to run through January 13, 2012