ON THE RECORD: Patti LuPone's Far Away Places, Plus a Jerome Kern Revue and Porter/Coward Creation

By Steven Suskin
March 3, 2013

This week's column addressed a live recording of Patti LuPone's Far Away Places act from 54 Below, plus songbooks of Jerome Kern ("The Land Where the Good Songs Go") and the pairing of Noël Coward and Cole Porter ("Noël and Cole").



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Patti LuPone: Far Away Places [Broadway Records]
Patti LuPone has been entertaining us, in one form or another, since she first turned up at the Harkness Theatre in 1975 as the "poor, tied-up darlin'" in the original Broadway production of The Robber Bridegroom. The highlights of her career are familiar: a missed-opportunity for stardom as the title character of The Baker's Wife, the David Merrick/Stephen Schwartz/Joseph Stein musical which folded on the road in 1976; full-fledged stardom in 1979 in the title role of the Andrew-Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice Evita; London stardom as Fantine, in the 1985 premiere production of Les Misérables; and later Broadway triumphs in two Merman-created roles, as Reno Sweeney in the 1987 Anything Goes and as Rose in the 2008 Gypsy.

Where there are ups there are downs, inevitably; in LuPone's case, the most severe was the Sunset Boulevard affair, wherein she created the role in London in 1993 but was disinvited from bringing it to Broadway. It all worked out fine, though, with the actress — after a long fight — reaching a royal settlement with Lord Lloyd Webber's money.

LuPone has remained unceasingly active, good times and bum times, and turned up in June 2012 as the inaugural act at the new nightclub 54 Below. This is the sparkling boîte in the basement of the Studio 54 building. LuPone turned out to be the perfect booking for the debut. 54 Below is a stunning room — designed by Broadway's John Lee Beatty, with Ken Billington on the lights — and LuPone was at her very best. That opening act was too good to be consigned to the limbo of pirated lap recordings, so Broadway Records saw fit to record and release it.

(At the same time, Broadway Records have allied with the 54 Below management to bring us more. Also available is Norbert Leo Butz: Memory and Mayhem, with Christiane Noll: Gifts and Andrea McArdle: 70s and Sunny to come. Let us cross our fingers that last week's indispensable act — a showcase of the work of Adam Guettel, with the composer assisted by Steven Pasquale and Whitney Bashor — will soon be on our disc players.)

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Patti LuPone
Photo by Ethan Hill

 

Director Scott Wittman (of Hairspray), writer Jeffrey Richman, and musical director Joseph Thalken contrived an evening in which Patti could simply play Patti. The result was pure entertainment, with the star altogether dazzling; she was clearly at ease while giving her all. Far Away Places was the name of the act, and that's the theme: Patti's wanderlust as she travels from place to place, from job to job. (Adding a layer to this, they start the set with Patti's rendition of "Gypsy in My Soul," from the 1937 Mask & Wig Show at the University of Pennsylvania. Thalken's arrangement is patched with numerous musical quotes from the score of Gypsy, and pretty funny.)

LuPone clearly has Weill on her mind; the act seems to have been assembled around four of his numbers. Patti's "Pirate Jenny" is especially good. We have no need of seeing another new Threepenny Opera just now, but this is a riveting performance. She also stops in Paris for Piaf's "Hymn to Love." The singing is fine although they use a less effective English translation than the familiar one, "If You Love Me (Really Love Me)."

Wanderlust at its wildest is represented by "Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking." I never thought I needed again to hear this Cole Porter oddity — written for the 1957 TV production of "Aladdin" — but wait till you hear Patti do it! She sings it with attitude, which is picked up by Thalken and his five-piece band ("The Gypsy Drifters"). Every one of Patti's affectations is present, more or less slathered over Porter's quaint list song (which somehow winds up in K & E's "New York, New York"). Quite an intercontinental treat.

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Cover art

I recently devoted part of a column to Rebecca Luker and her salute to the songs of Jerome Kern, "I Got Love." Which is pretty much wonderful. The folks at PS Classics have now brought us two related recordings. The Land Where the Good Songs Go is formatted as a new revue, featuring the songs of Jerome Kern. Noël and Cole is — well, another new revue featuring songs by you know who and you know who.

Both have been devised and arranged by David Loud, most of whose work I have very much enjoyed since he first caught our attention as Zoe Caldwell's long-suffering accompanist in Master Class. But not here, I'm afraid. The Kern evening — recorded on two discs — incorporates 30 songs, most of them from the early part of the great melodist's career. But they are carpentered into one of those six-character plots wherein three couples meet, fight, split up and etc. while singing whatever song can be made — vaguely — to fit. Kern wrote a 1907 song about the newfangled new subway, so a pair of lovers here meet on the subway. Things like that. Combine "Bill's a Liar" — a justly forgotten song from The White Chrysanthemum in 1907 — plus the more-familiar "he's just my Bill" and you've got both a character and a story line.

While Kern enthusiasts can be happy to get a chance to hear some of the obscurities, it is at a cost. Too many of the songs — including some truly wonderful ones — are trivialized; shoehorned in, but not honored. Ms. Luker, on "I Got Love," celebrates Kern. Every song is treated like a glittering bijou. On "Land Where the Good Songs Go," said good songs are treated merely like material, a jukebox-type musical consisting of scratchy 78s.

Loud's Coward/Porter evening — both of these had their professional debut, by the way, as part of the Broadway Close Up series at New York's Merkin Hall — has the same inherent problem. Here they alternate corresponding songs by the two masters; half the cast sings Cole, the other half sings Noël, and they occasionally meet in the middle. The songs — many of which are justly celebrated — serve as pieces of a less-than-intriguing puzzle.

Both CDs display the usual quality of recordings from PS Classics, including fine singers familiar from their many studio albums. On the Kern collection we get Kate Baldwin, Heidi Blickenstaff, Graham Rowat, and Ms. Luker herself. The Porter/Coward features Sara Jean Ford, Euan Morton, Elizabeth Stanley and Barbara Walsh. Appearing on both are Philip Chaffin and Matthew Scott.

Noël and Cole — the songwriters, not the revue — can both stand on their own feet in this, our 21st century. But we don't get many chances to hear lesser-known Kern. All those involved with "The Land Where the Good Songs Go" are saluted for the effort, but the results don't cheer me.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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