PATTI LuPONE: The Lady with the Torch [Ghostlight 7915583303]
Patti LuPone has a reputation for mannered stage performances, with an exaggerated diction that sometimes gets in the way of the material. Just now, LuPone is proving her mettle at the O'Neill as Mrs. Lovett. No shortcuts here; hard work and strong discipline, result in a daring and unencumbered performance. Six weeks into the run of Sweeney Todd, LuPone — almost as if in reward — put down her tuba and tooled over to the studio to record "The Lady with the Torch." This is a collection of torch songs. To quote the lady herself: "Personally, I think torch is short for torture.” But don't let that put you off. LuPone is as mannered and exaggerated here as she has been accused of in the past. But this is a collection of torch songs. While the songs are independently written and separated by decades, LuPone seems almost to be playing one consistent character throughout the CD. "The Lady with the Torch" makes for great fun, with some pretty nifty numbers along the way.
For example, "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” from Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn's early catastrophe Glad to See Ya! This one really soars. So does "Ill Wind,” the Cotton Club classic by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. Johnny Mercer's "I Wanna Be Around” is a perfect song of the genre, with LuPone giving a punishing rendition. Ralph Burns' great jazz tune, "Early Autumn”; Matt Malneck and Gus Kahn's "I'm Through with Love”; Arlen and Capote's "Don't Like Goodbyes.” Fourteen songs demonstrating Patti LuPone in a mannered but endearing – and entertaining – mood. This despite her cheery liner notes. ("Christmas . . . that lovely time of year I like to call suicide season.”)
An early version of The Lady with the Torch was mounted as a cabaret evening, conceived and directed by Hairspray's Scott Wittman. LuPone – and apparently Wittman – have now reconceived it for CD, with Chris Fenwick replacing the late Dick Gallagher (LuPone's long-time conductor). Also on board is Jonathan Tunick, who, not surprisingly, has an excellent feel for the era. The orchestrations sound great, the nine-man band sounds great, and the LuPone sounds great.
RITA GARDNER: TRY TO REMEMBER, A LOOK BACK AT OFF-BROADWAY [Harbinger HCD-2202]
Rita Gardner, best known as the "Soon It's Gonna Rain” girl in the original company of The Fantasticks, has just made a grand return to Broadway – nearly 50 years after her New York debut – in The Wedding Singer. The success of The Fantasticks wafted Gardner to Broadway in 1962 when that show's director cast her in A Family Affair, the first John Kander musical. Said director departed in Philadelphia – replaced by Hal Prince – but Gardner nevertheless got to the big street. Only briefly, though. Gardner's Broadway career consists mostly of understudy jobs, with assignments from the sublime (covering Barbara Harris in On a Clear Day) to the ridiculous (covering Connie Towers in Ari). Her most interesting Broadway job, in retrospect, was singing "I Could Write a Book” in the two-week, 1963 City Center revival of Pal Joey. Interesting in that her Joey was none other than Bob Fosse.
The fact is, Gardner was an Off-Broadway gal. Appearances – besides The Fantasticks – included Jerry Herman's revue Nightcap, Lorraine Hansberry's To Be Young, Gifted and Black and Jacques Brel is Alive and Well. All of which suggested Gardner's one-woman show, Try to Remember, A Look Back at Off-Broadway.
This is a tale of Off-Broadway in general (very general) and Gardner's career in particular. After filling us in on her 1959 debut, sitting on a stool with Kenneth Nelson singing boy-girl duets in the Herman revue, Gardner embarks on a "give my regards to Off-Broadway melody.” This six-minute lark is almost enough to do us in; listening to a sixty-something actress sing snippets of Grease, Little Shop and Best Little Whorehouse gets pretty scary. (In their admittedly non-comprehensive tour of Off-Broadway, I couldn't help but notice that they overlooked Riverwind – a show that would be interesting to see today, with Gardner in the cast.)
Gardner immediately rights the situation with a sturdy performance of "Mack the Knife,” a strong performance of "Lazy Afternoon,” a joyous "Carousel” (from Brel), and a riveting "I Don't Remember Christmas” (from Starting Here, Starting Now). By this point, any consideration of the performer's age has disappeared; she sings these songs, and she's got us. She even gives us the exuberant title song from Taking My Turn. Who knew Taking My Turn had an exuberant title song?
Best of all is Gardner's rendition of "I Miss You,” the stunning song of loss from the ill-fated musical Colette. Every time I hear this song, by The Fantasticks authors Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, I want to hear it yet again. After more from The Fantasticks — there are parts of four songs on this CD — Gardner finishes with "Joy,” another Tom and Harvey winner from Colette.
Try to Remember was devised by Gardner, musical director Alex Rybeck and producer/director Barry Kleinbort. The show was first performed in 1998 at the Bay Street Theatre, followed by engagements in Florida and New Hope. The New York premiere took place — fittingly enough — at the Sullivan Street Theatre in 2000, playing one night a week for several months. The CD was recorded live, before a studio audience, in 2002. Ms. Gardner is presently unavailable to reprise the piece, being tied up in what looks to be a new Broadway hit. But I expect we will be seeing Try to Remember, A Look Back at Off-Broadway again somewhere Off-Broadway, if only on dark nights at The Wedding Singer. — Steven Suskin, author of the newly released "Second Act Trouble” [Applause Books], "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork,” "Show Tunes,” and the "Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.