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Review: Patti Lupone: A Life in Notes at The Festival Theatre

Review by Lisa Lanzi


Before you experience a legend and long-time idol live there is always that tiny niggle that they could just be past their prime.  That heretical thought was quickly cast from my mind as from the first note to the last Patti Lupone delivers vocal excellence and an extraordinary stage presence, proving that age is just a number; or entirely irrelevant in her case, and proof that singing and loving your work can be a ‘youth serum’.  With two Grammy Awards, Three Tony Awards, and two Olivier Awards to her credit, not to mention a truckload of nominations in all those categories and more, Lupone strode on stage to rapturous applause and cheering in the very full Festival Theatre.


Patti Lupone : A Life In Notes is both a joyous memorial and an endearing homage to this singer and actor’s long life (“so far”), her many adventures, loves, heartaches, and triumphs.  The work presents a selection of songs, in no particular chronological order, that reference a life lived large; from her Northport, Long Island childhood and formative teen years during the 60s, to her New York (Julliard and The Acting Company) years, a celebrated (sometimes controversial) Broadway and international career, incursions into film and television, the sad time of the HIV AIDS crisis, her marriage and only son, her experience of Covid and much more. As Lupone quips, her memoire was penned in 2010 so “it must be time for another one”.


Conceived and directed by Tony, Grammy, and Olivier award-winning lyricist and director Scott Wittman, this work premiered at New York’s Carnegie Hall in April 2024.  Although written by Jeffrey Richman, an awarded theatre and TV producer and creator, the songs are the feature while the spoken, connective introductions are short and sweet, but always funny, or perhaps a little more reflective, but often with a touch of the Lupone sass.  As our star said: “Music is a gift, and has a power to crystallize a moment” - she calls music her “touchstone”.  We all have songs that define instants in our lives, whatever their flavour, and the emotion from those occasions is usually revisited when you hear that melody again.  


Those early years were characterized by ‘teen angst’ songs like Rosemary Clooney’s ‘Come On-a My House’, ‘Town Without Pity’, recorded originally by Gene Pitney, and ‘Summertime Summertime’ by The Jamies.  Admitting to succumbing to the Hippie vibe during the political turmoil of 60s New York, she lived by the slogan “conform or rebel!”, jubilantly choosing the latter.  Lupone gave us her version of ‘Lilac Wine’ (sung by Eartha Kitt and others, then reprised by Jeff Buckley in 1994).  Her introduction went something like this: “I first heard this in a haze of marijuana smoke in a Manhattan apartment that looked like a Bombay bordello… I was 19. I was falling for a 28-year-old.”  


Graduating Julliard and working with The Acting Company endowed Lupone with a rich learning path, honing the prodigious acting skills that have always enhanced her musical career.  Lupone has an innate talent to take a song and make it ‘hers’, even well-known ones like Bacharach’s ‘Alfie’ or ‘The Man That Got Away’ (Arlen/Gershwin), made famous by Cilla Black, Dionne Warwick, or Judy Garland.  


Of course, the Broadway hits were met with rapturous glee by a very vocal, welcoming audience, particularly the moment Lupone executed a dramatic half turn away from the grand piano, martini glass in hand, to serenade us with Sondheim’s ‘Ladies Who Lunch’.  ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ also hit the spot with exquisite guitar-only accompaniment as did ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ with pared back piano and guitar (Lupone was the original Fantine in the London cast, 1985).  An unexpected delight was ‘Stars’ (Janis Ian), again with solo guitar, a gentle comment on a life lived in the spotlight perhaps.  ‘Anything Goes’, another favourite, related to the excesses of the 80s and led on to the poignant ‘Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye’ in memory of friends and colleagues lost to AIDS.


As we turned into the home stretch, Lupone sang “three songs from three decades” as she spoke of family connection being her saving grace when the Pandemic rendered theatres dark.  Lorenz Hart’s ‘I Didn’t Know What Time it Was’ led on to a tear-inducing Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Make You Feel My Love’.  Lupone joked that the show had to be over as she had sung all the songs she remembered, before launching jauntily into ‘Forever Young’ and a gorgeous ‘In My Life’ which morphed into ‘Those Were The Days’ and a standing ovation.

The magical evening was made more special by spare staging, glowing cyclorama, and the two magnificent musicians travelling with Lupone.  Musical director and arranger Joseph Thalken accompanies on piano with utmost skill and delicacy.  Playing an array of strings (guitars, violin, mandolin, bass ukulele) Brad Phillips is a superb addition.  Both men add vocal backing harmonies in some songs and obviously have a close rapport with the singer, all resulting in an intimacy that belied the size of the room.


At 75 years young, Patti Lupone is radiant, present, and gracious.  Her voice modulates effortlessly from that chill-inducing Broadway belt to a velvety alto, speech quality mid-tones to her clear, strong mezzo and soprano highs.  A masterclass in performance, style, and talent.

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