Who better to headline the opening of 54 Below, a new night club adjacent to the heart of Manhattan’s theater district, than perhaps the reigning Broadway diva, Patti LuPone? What better way to inaugurate a new series of recordings of live cabaret shows than with that diva’s performance? No better way, given the critical reaction to the LuPone show, no better way by a long shot. Fans will get their chance to hear the set on January 15 when Broadway Records releases the debut disc in their “Live at 54 Below” series, Patti LuPone’s Far Away Places.
From the moment LuPone opens her mouth, she has her audience in thrall. These are people, friends and fans, who know what she’s selling and can’t wait to buy. Their excitement is palpable and she feeds on it. It is an excitement that comes through even on the CD.
Wanderlust is the theme of the evening, as the singer takes the audience on a journey over water to far away places, interspersed with the kind of clever banter you’ve come to expect from a cabaret performer. While the clever jokes can get old with the repeated play, the album is likely to generate laughter, whether she is talking about her talent for accents or even her Sicilian heritage. They are certainly entertaining enough in the moment.
Still, no one is going to buy the CD for the incidental comedy. The music is the thing, and the music can be “fabulous.” She opens by setting the theme with “Gypsy in My Soul” and follows with a swinging jazzy take on Willie Nelson’s “Night Life” in which she redundantly introduces herself and welcomes her audience. The first of four Kurt Weill tunes, “Bilbao Song,” is next. According to the liner notes, LuPone was especially keen on performing Weill, and her version of “Bilbao” and later “Pirate Jenny” are among the evening’s highlights. Somewhat surprisingly, she ends the show with “September Song” in spite of its opening lines.
Variety is the key to the set list. There is the atmospheric, smoky “I Cover the Waterfront,” a bluesy “Travelin’ Light,” and a sprawling disco attack on the Bee Gees’ “Nights on Broadway.” There is a playfully cheeky version of “By the Sea,” from Sweeney Todd and a dramatically stylish performance of Edith Piaf’s “Hymn to Love.” She does some jazzy phrasing on “I Wanna Be Around” before turning in a comic direction. Cole Porter’s “Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking” takes her on a romp all over the musical world, ending in an homage to “New York, New York.” A sweetly yearning treatment of the album’s title song “Far Away Places” and an exotic version of Friedrich Hollaender’s “Black Market” that will make you forget Marlene Dietrich round out the album.
Accompanying LuPone are Antony Geralis (accordion and keyboards), Larry Saltzman (guitar and banjo), Andy Stein (violin and saxophone) and Paul Pizzuti (drums and percussion). Music director and arranger Joseph Thalken plays piano and helps with vocals.