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Divas Patti & Patricia: LuPone & Racette
Live in Concert

Patti LuPone comes from the world of theatre and Patricia Racette is an established opera singer, but each has found another home on the cabaret stage. (They co-headlined this past summer's benefit gala for the Ravinia Festival.) Each has a new live album that includes works by Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, and Edith Piaf. Let the songs of loving and longing and loss begin ...


Broadway Records

Inaugurating a new series for a recently launched record label, as she inaugurated Manhattan's newest nightclub—the gorgeous 54 Below in the theatre district—here comes Patti. Yes, it's a tour de force as Broadway's formidable force to be reckoned with, Patti LuPone, brings her mix of mega-power voice and moxy. Broadway Records brings a very welcome New Year's present of a series of live recordings capturing the acts of musical theatre stars at this venue. (Norbert Leo Butz, Andrea McArdle, and Christiane Noll also have discs in the series and will be covered here in coming weeks.)

With wanderlust as its theme, Far Away Places as a LuPone recital is full of the belting, bustling brashness of the star and a few more pensive moments, such as the title song about a yearning to travel (memorable in Margaret Whiting's wistful early record). This number also includes comments about her lifelong desire to travel and explore, noting that she's lucky to have a life and career that allows that, and including an "inside" reference to her once breaking character on stage to scold a customer whose cell phone was ringing. Some of the Patti patter captures the excitement of this new club opening and recalling the old days when she made her way on the Great White Way, when a steak was cheaper and times were wilder.

Although she does have another romp with "By the Sea" from her Sweeney Todd experiences, this is not otherwise a revisiting of her most prominent theatre roles. That material was included in a 2-CD live recording from 1993. However, there are other similarities between the two sets, beyond a Sondheim selection: The music of Kurt Weill showed up on five selections on that set and, without repeats, four Weill melodies show up here. Both concerts include the shopping list of a list song "Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking" (from Cole Porter's last score, Aladdin, for television); it was slinky in the first half of the earlier version, now it sooner becomes boisterous and frantically faster, but still incorporates a nod to Kander & Ebb's "Theme from New York, New York"). And the writers of "Far Away Places," Alex Kramer and Joan Whitney, are represented there with by "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens." Also, Scott Wittman conceived and directed both, as he did for her 2005 Lady with a Torch (recorded as a studio album) and one of those numbers is brought back here: "I Wanna Be Around," but not quite a clone. Whereas the studio version has coiled anger and seethes and builds, here she adds broader rantings and asides for comic effect and indeed we hear the crowd respond with laughter. LuPone's lusty laughter is heard here and there, too, along with the occasional quip or outburst enthusing over the club or the five-man band, and then her throaty deep-voiced "thank you."

Rambunctious struts and a celebratory party atmosphere are prominent on a few tracks, but the lady and musical director-arranger-keyboardist Joseph Thalken can turn on a dime and suggest an instant lonely melancholia , restlessness, or sense of drama. However, things don't become devastatingly despairing or slow down in energy for long. (Weill/Brecht's "Pirate Jenny" does some heavy lifting into haunted territory, but does not go all out for chills and threats.) The LuPone devotees and the LuPone resistors will both note some of her trademark indulgences: a sense of entitled strut, a braying confidence, more attention to being a whirlwind of intensity or characterization than to precise diction and subtle nuances. Steamroller or steamy, brooding balladeer, she is distinctive and diva-ish, but even without the visuals of facial expressions and movement and eye contact, there is a sense that she's aware of her reputation, power, and star stance, and is having some fun with the responsive crowd which includes some loyalists. There is no seeming pretense at fragility or innocence, but she allows herself some vulnerability on "I Cover the Waterfront" and rue on "September Song," the encore. Her Edith Piaf section has some spoken indications of devotion and she takes up "Hymn to Love" in an English version and there's the wink at a Piaf trademark with that comically clever retort/answer song, "I Regret Everything" (Bill Burnette/ Marguerite Sarlin).

Robert Sher, who produced the album of the Gypsy revival she headed, does his magic here, creating real atmosphere and showing off the star front and center, as if we have a coveted seat at a sold-out nightclub night of fireworks and a few slow burns.


GPR Records

She may be an opera Diva on Detour to the path of non-operatic material, but no worries: Banish any fears that here comes one of those impressively vocally-endowed ladies who's clueless about getting inside lyrics for phrasing and storytelling. Patricia Racette lets down her hair, and is not wearing white gloves and tiptoeing into foreign territory. No. Standards and jazz were her early love and singing experience, so she's no musical tourist. She's relishing being in a comfort zone and we listeners get the bonus of someone with range and richness and a full sound, but one that is not exploited at the expense of communicating character or subtler emotions. Oh, if you didn't know in advance the mixed background of the person at the mic, you might make an educated guess due to the approach on some phrases or the extra dollop of elegance on some sustained notes. While her chest voice is robust and gutsy, when the melody lines bring her into higher notes, sometimes a very "legit" soprano trill or gloss shows itself and glistens. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It all sounds satisfying.

Although the fifth selection of this live presentation may seem a little late to protest that she's nervous performing, the inclusion of "I'm Calm" by Stephen Sondheim, from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is indeed a funny thing happening as Miss Racette shows us she can tickle the funnybone, too, and quite competently. Unlike some opera singers on holiday, she has the skill under her "belt" of knowing when it can be more effective to make lyrics crisp and staccato and when this or a slight pause or "acting moments" including near-talking a word or singing with a sigh or shrug can be more effective that just keeping everything legato and even.

Interpretations of some well-traveled standards from the usual suspects—another Sondheim piece as a sure fire emotional encore, "Not a Day Goes By," and Harold Arlen (with Ira Gershwin on the ultimate torch songs, "The Man That Got Away," and Ira's classic with brother George, "I Got Rhythm" in a mash-up with Arlen & Ted Koehler's "Get Happy" as the opener number or the same team's "Come Rain Or Come Shine"), Cole Porter's "So in Love" from Kiss Me, Kate, as well as two pages from the songbook of Rodgers & Hart: "Where or When" and the character piece about the much-married merry murderess, "To Keep My Love Alive." Most respectful rather than groundbreaking or turned inside out with daring innovation are these renditions, but she still generally comes off as fearless in jumping into the pools of cabaret revelation and theatrical ownership of attitude. This also goes for her Edith Piaf signature songs which also let her use her mastery of French, showing her genealogical roots.

Accompaniment is only piano, but with the very able colleague Craig Terry at the keyboard, we don't feel cheated. Instead, it adds to the intimacy and direct communication and focus. Yes, there are times when one wants something even more explored or lingered over, as in the metaphysical wonderings of "Where or When" drinking in the sorrow more on Matt Dennis and Earl Brent's brave-faced "Angel Eyes." But compensations described above are rewarding. Most satisfying in pricking up the ears and letting us hear something old in a new context and gift wrap is the nicely wrought—but not overwrought—piece mentioned earlier on the bed of a famed classical setting. (I won't give away the lovely surprise, but it works beautifully.)

Down-to-earth patter is included in the Racette set which helps us get a sense of her "non-diva" personality and attitude and real love of this kind of material and its writers. Likewise, this is emphasized in liner notes by musical theatre writer Skip Kennon, Lucy Barnhouse (who was present at the live session), and the singer herself, where she also speaks of her background with her loving but opera-resistant late mother and thanks her life partner Beth for support.

However, while the booklet finds space for all this, her detailed opera credits, photos, and a repeat of the song list which is on the back cover, the songwriters are not duly credited in either spot. Nor are their names uttered in the patter. Yes, several are mentioned in passing on one page, without matching title and writer, but this seems to be an unfortunate oversight, even for those who know the answers without relying on a quick Google. Also not indicated is that the opening piece is not the only medley. While nothing is given perfunctory short shrift in the generous medleys (one for four sad numbers about love ending and one for a Piaf trilogy), they are listed as separate numbers in both appearances of the list, and each segment is tracked separately so that the total reflects the list of 18 segments. This makes it easy to select one part of a medley to re-hear a favorite; and the talk is placed at the end of a tracked piece so one can skip ahead to singing more conveniently on repeat plays if desired. Repeat plays may reveal some nuances not noted in a casual first skim where one may be taken by the broader strokes. There are some effective colorings of mood that take advantage of eloquent lyric choices, flights of fancy and joy, and a cute switch when it comes to the repeat of the line in "I Got Rhythm" where she starts to sing "I got my man" and stops the "m" sound of that last word and pointedly changes it to "gal"—and the audience gets the point, indicated by applause. And applause is warm and appreciative throughout the set—and certainly well deserved. This Detour is an enjoyable side trip, but no casual Sunday-driver jaunt.

Patti LuPone returns for five consecutive nights at 54 Below, beginning February 12, and Patricia Racette will be at 54 Below in Manhattan this Sunday, January 27.

- Rob Lester

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