Patti LuPone: Far Away Places

Patti LuPone

By Brian Scott Lipton

"I would have been a great stewardess," cracks Patti LuPone -- before revealing that her signature catchphrase would not have been "coffee, tea or me," but a few choice words she's uttered before -- in the midst of Far Away Places, her extraordinary new cabaret act premiering at New York's beautiful brand-new nightspot 54 Below.

That line, along with some other clever words -- and an eclectic yet brilliantly chosen songlist -- is indicative of the magic that director Scott Wittman has performed, letting us see LuPone in the most relaxed vein I've witnessed in the past three decades. (I can't personally vouch for her legendary shows at Les Mouches in the 1980s.) She plays with the audience, she shares a well-timed anecdote or two, she even boogies a little (to the Bee Gees' "Nights on Broadway"). She's everybody's diva.

Most importantly, of course, she sings -- not just with her trademark power, but with a sublime versatility, finding new interpretations to old favorites, from a jazz-tinged "Gypsy in My Soul" to a super-sexy pairing of "Black Market" and "Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking," and even a surprisingly comic "I Wanna Be Around" (which she dubs the "Sicilian National Anthem) -- all aided by a superb five-man band led by arranger Joseph Thalken.

As might be expected, she goes all-out on Stephen Sondheim's "By the Sea" (from her Broadway triumph in Sweeney Todd), mining the song's rich verbal humor. But she also brings a remarkably moving simplicity to such ballads as "I Cover the Waterfront," "Hymn to Love," "Travelin' Light," and the title tune, reveling in their emotional underpinnings.

And while it should be no surprise that she knows her way around the work of Kurt Weill, her renditions of "Bilbao," "Pirate Jenny," and "September Song" are practically master classes in handling these tricky works, finding the perfect tone for each of these diverse classics.

Admittedly, fans expecting an evening of LuPone's greatest hits will not find what they're looking for here -- she does perform two encores, one chosen via tweet from the audience and likely to be a time-tested showstopper, followed by the wonderful "Invisible" (from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) -- but I can't imagine anyone not being transported by Far Away Places.