Review: Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin at the Ahmanson

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No need for clever titles when you’re bringing on the theatrical heat. “An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin” wisely puts its headliners first. And these two musical theater legends deliver a sparely elegant master class in the art of conjuring emotional truth in dramatic song.

The show, which runs through Monday at the Ahmanson Theatre, makes for a nonpareil middle-age date night. Married couples and domestic partners who worry that they’ve fallen into a rut shouldn’t miss an opportunity to let these two Broadway veterans revive the old passion with their inimitable mix of spring freshness and autumn color.


There are a couple of provisos I feel duty bound to note, but don’t let them deter you from this thoroughly enjoyable multi-hued song cycle on the ups and downs and in-betweens of love.

Patinkin, who directed and co-conceived the show with his longtime pianist Paul Ford, wasn’t in his best voice at Tuesday’s opening night performance. It wasn’t simply that he sounded older, which is only natural when you consider that it was 30 years ago that he performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with LuPone in “Evita,” the Broadway-bound show that catapulted her into divadom. His lyric tenor, frayed at the edges, lacked its trademark suppleness.

The other issue is that the second act, which concentrates on songs from “Merrily We Roll Along” and “Carousel,” encourages the singers to lose themselves too completely in their roles for a concert. The pathos reaches deeper perhaps, but the stars sacrifice some of the first act magic that had us marveling at their transformative agility to move between songwriting sensibilities.

That versatility was on magnificent display early on as the music moved from “South Pacific” to “Company” — a journey from the romantic possibility of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to the neurotic actuality of Stephen Sondheim.

LuPone and Patinkin took a sprightly, slightly clowning approach to Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and drolly jetted from Vernon Duke and E.Y. Harburg’s “April in Paris” to Murray Grand’s “April in Fairbanks.” But these comic detours didn’t undermine the depth of feeling in “A Quiet Thing,” the lovely John Kander and Fred Ebb ballad from “Flora, the Red Menace,” or the shattering heartbreak of excerpts from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel.” If anything they guarded against musical theater’s eternal problem of cheesiness.

Patinkin relied more on his acting than his vocal strength to get him through “Some Enchanted Evening.” One missed the operatic liftoff, but he managed nonetheless to piercingly convey the mature longing of Emile de Becque. And what a delight when LuPone shakes off the cockeyed optimism of Emile’s small-town love, Nellie Forbush, to assume the manic terror of a modern urban bride in Sondheim’s “Getting Married Today” from “Company.”

LuPone and Patinkin have that gift that separates great musical theater artists from great singers — the ability to unveil the hidden human drama. I adore LuPone’s dulcet sound and don’t mind her occasional swallowing of syllables because she has a way of magnifying psychological truth. And Patinkin, who happens to be a dab Shakespearean hand, shares his costar’s knack of being able to induce profound on-the-spot changes in the poetic weather.

Note the density of atmospheric pressure that surrounds LuPone as the onstage accompaniment of Ford on piano and John Beal on bass ushers in “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Or the way Patinkin movingly regards her as she meditates on old love during “In Buddy’s Eyes.” These moments may leave hard-core fans bowled over in bliss, but they’re not just for schmaltzy Broadway buffs.

The production design by David Korins features a quasi garden of makeshift lanterns, which is beautifully enhanced by Eric Cornwell’s shadowy lighting. The staging’s classy look made this seem anything but a vanity project for two traveling troupers.

That same care was evident in the Ann Reinking’s choreography, which was as imaginative as it was careful of aging bodies. The high point, a swirling pas de deux in flexible rolling office chairs, combined genuine grace with some humorous touches of arthritic realism.

The evening even had a note of suspense. LuPone, who’s been in the media lately for singling out audience members who appear to be recording or photographing her performances, had me worried that my cellphone might spontaneously turn on and get me ejected from my seat. Fortunately, no such scene erupted, and the only boisterous cry came (appropriately) during “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from “Gypsy,” the most recent of LuPone’s many Broadway triumphs.

This enchanting collaboration between LuPone and Patinkin renews our affection for these evergreen talents while reminding us that performers, like romantic love, can ripen wondrously even as time unpityingly leaves its marks.

-- Charles McNulty

An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin,’ Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Monday. Ends June 29. $20 to $90. (213) 628-2772. Running time: 2 hours.