By Michael Hillyer
Striding onto the small stage of the swank midtown supper club 54 Below in her splendid new cabaret show, SONGS FROM A HAT, legendary Broadway diva Patti LuPone puts a few matters to rest right away. First off, she can sing whatever song she wants to, and she doesn’t have to sing all of them. Second, the order in which she sings them doesn’t matter. Third, she doesn’t need to be a member of Actors Equity to completely sell out a run of show commanding Broadway+ prices all on her own, at the drop of a hat.
Allow me to explain. The repertoire that comprises SONGS FROM A HAT is chosen at random, by pulling song titles out of an ample top hat, which is done either by Ms. LuPone herself or by passing the hat to audience members closest to the stage. At times she tosses a choice or two away, dissatisfied, and goes digging for another one – hey, it’s her show. At the special New Year’s Day performance, added to an already sold-out run, which this reviewer attended via live stream, she explained that there are 43 song titles in the hat, that 15 of them were “new” songs, and that 2 of them hadn’t been drawn yet. So, SONGS FROM A HAT is very much the luck of the draw, since the content and song order changes with every performance. Patti LuPone’s recent decision to surrender her union card notwithstanding, her apparent retirement from the Broadway stage is going swimmingly, at least for those of us lucky enough to be in actual and virtual attendance at 54 Below to kick off the new year.
That’s not to say that everything is perfect. The improvisational nature of the evening can sometimes lead to back-to-back choices that aren’t ideal, and at one point Ms. LuPone seemed to just give in to it, declaring “it’s going to be a lovely ballad night.” And it was, with American standard staples like “Moon River” and “So In Love” joining show tunes like “How To Handle A Woman,” “Anyone Can Whistle,” “Another Hundred People” and “They Say It’s Wonderful,” as well as popular music like “Love Me Tender,” “Fever” and Loggins and Messina’s “A Love Song.” Her distinctively brassy voice and temperament are well-fitted to all of these. Ms. LuPone is a fearless singer. There were, however, a couple of songs that didn’t seem to be ideally suited to her skills set. She managed to make them into highlights of the evening by bringing everything down to low and slow, and simply letting the song through. I wouldn’t normally expect her to sing something like Cindy Walker’s “You Don’t Know Me” or Leon Russell’s “A Song For You,” but she expressed the tenderness in both songs without any of her customary Broadway timbre, and knocked them out of the park without belting anything. Brava, diva. Both song choices are clear evidence of her willingness to take enormous risks on the fly, as well as an answer and rebuke to her critics who say that she is all brass and no strings.
Accompanied on the piano by her talented musical director, Joseph Thalken, standout segments included a Rogers and Hart medley that featured “There’s A Small Hotel” and “I Could Write A Book” – which allowed some beautiful, confident solo piano work by the excellent Mr. Thalken – as well as a Christmas medley featuring “Christmas In The Trenches” in a harrowing rendition by Ms. LuPone, as well as “Santa Lost A Ho.” (Hey, it’s her show.) Other bright spots were “I Regret Everything,” a clever Edith Piaf spoof by Bill Burnett and Peggy Sarlin that falls right into Ms. LuPone’s dramatic wheelhouse, as well as Sondheim’s “I Never Do Anything Twice,” but most especially “Meadowlark” from THE BAKER’S WIFE, which she has been performing since 1976 and whose herculean demands she simply chewed up and spat out with the same bravura vocal fireworks that made her famous in the first place.
All told, the show was just under an hour and a half, with an encore (a gorgeous rendition of “The Parting Glass”), and she sang just over twenty songs. The rest stayed in the hat. Although this show will be different with every iteration of itself, what will remain constant from night to night is the astonishing Patti LuPone, and I’ll take my hat off to that.
Running at 54 Below, 254 West 54th Street, NYC until January 8th. Tickets & Info: 646-476-3551. The waitlist is closed, but you never know….