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Stage and Film : ‘LuPone in Concert’ Proves Vocally Secure

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TIMES THEATER CRITIC

There was a moment Saturday, at the start of the second half of “Patti LuPone in Concert at the Westwood Playhouse” (a title that tells you all you need to know), when LuPone got ready to deliver her signature “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Slowly, she raised her open arms in “Evita” fashion.

The audience that had just listened to her make her second act entrance to the strains of “Looking for Love” misinterpreted the gesture as asking for more applause--and provided it with a chuckle.

The fact is, Lupone does not need to ask for applause. She earns it in what constitutes her first concert show in Los Angeles, not counting a Hollywood Bowl appearance last summer with, as it turns out, the same backup singers who back her up here: John West, Joseph Powell, Gene Van Buren and Byron Motley, collectively known as the Mermen.

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As first concert appearances go, LuPone makes a striking one under the reserved direction of Scott Wittman. She’s smartly dressed in black velvet pants and short white jacket, with beaded black lapels that look like a man’s untied bow tie casually slung around her neck. In an indirect reference to her ongoing role on TV’s “Life Goes On,” she tells us, as she tosses back her head to show off a glamorized profile, that she has been “Hollywoodlandized.”

Well . . . maybe. But the LuPone we relish here is the musical theater LuPone, the one who (did you notice?) looks a little like a young Barbara Walters; the confident one with the unmistakable “star quality” who performed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita” in Los Angeles in 1979; the one who did Reno Sweeney in the smashing Lincoln Center revival of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”; the one, finally, who is getting ready to go to London to star as Norma Desmond in Lloyd Webber’s latest opus: his musical version of the film “Sunset Boulevard.”

So it is not surprising that while the first half of her “Concert” at the Westwood is primarily devoted to a lively variety of popular songs (from Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” to the tongue-twisting “Supermarket in Old Peking”), it is the second half--what LuPone calls “the theater section”--that really gets the audience lathered up.

True, the first half includes a respectable “Surabaya Johnny” (from Kurt Weill’s “Happy End”) and concludes with a rousing “Being Alive” (Stephen Sondheim’s “Company”), but serious theater music is reserved for Act II.

Having delivered herself of the obligatory “Argentina” early on (a haunting melody with lyrics that continue to make no sense), LuPone moves on to better stuff that illustrates the rest of her career, from her days with the late John Houseman’s Acting Company and “The Robber Bridegroom,” to misadventures on the road with embattled producer David Merrick and “The Baker’s Wife.”

(“If Hitler were alive,” she quipped, “fitting punishment would be to send him out on the road with a musical in trouble.”)

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Like classmate Kevin Kline, LuPone was a member of the now-famous first-year class of the drama division Houseman founded at New York’s Juilliard School. So there is more tribute to Houseman.

This includes a fond retelling of Houseman and Orson Welles’ clashes with government and the unions over their Mercury Theatre’s politically incorrect production of “The Cradle Will Rock” in 1937. And a song from the show.

The patter in this portion of the concert is much more self-assured, often funny and always informative, without overstaying its welcome. But, again, patter is not what the show’s about. Singing is, and LuPone, in great voice, delivers.

The impudent nonchalance of her “Anything Goes” makes you wish you could see her do the entire musical. You can see why her delicate “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Miserables” won her an Olivier award. Only her “As Long As He Needs Me” (from “Oliver!”), so much weaker musically, makes you wonder why it was included in the program.

But the lady has plenty of moxie and did not hesitate at Saturday’s matinee to reprise a segment of a song when she and the seven-piece band (under the snappy musical direction of John McDaniel) momentarily got off the track.

“You paid a lot of money for these tickets,” she said, interrupting herself. “You deserve (for us) to get it right.” They got it right--she, the band and the Mermen, whose back-up harmonizing and support (especially in “Moonshine Lullabye”) is sweet as honey.

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Smartly and specifically, LuPone avoids doing anything from the upcoming “Sunset Boulevard.” Why be prematurely judged? But in a much-clamored-for encore we were granted a fleeting few seconds of text and a couple of musical bars that offered a glimpse of Norma Desmond doing her thing.

LuPone should have no trouble. There’s a new maturity there, a new vocal richness and more star quality than Evita could cry for.

* “Patti LuPone in Concert at the Westwood Playhouse,” 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Wednesday-Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 and 8 p.m. Sunday, 7 p.m. Ends Sunday. $35-$40; (310) 208-5454 or (800) 233-3123). Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes. Patti LuPone: Herself

John West, Joseph Powell, Gene Van Buren, Byron Motley: The Mermen.

An Eric Krebs presentation, conceived and directed by Scott Wittman. Lights John Hastings. Sound Otts Munderloh. Musical director John McDaniel. Orchestra McDaniel, Brian Miller, Joel DiBartolo, Peter Woodford, Mike Vaccaro, Wally Snow, Jackie O’Neill.

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