PROVINCETOWN — During an onstage discussion with Patti LuPone about the performers who have helped define the modern Broadway musical, Seth Rudetsky had a question for his guest: “Do you think of three divas: Bernadette, Betty, and Patti?’’
LuPone immediately shot back: “No, I think of one diva.’’ Then she let loose with one of her eruptive bursts of laughter.
The two-time Tony winner didn’t hold back much when it came time for her to sing, either. LuPone appeared as the first guest of Rudetsky’s “Broadway at the Art House’’ series on Wednesday, and let’s just say that she’ll be a tough act to follow for the rest of this summer’s roster. That lineup includes the aforementioned Betty Buckley (though not the aforementioned Bernadette Peters), as well as Charles Busch, Andrea Martin, Megan Mullally, Alice Ripley, Mario Cantone, Faith Prince, Marilyn Maye, and Judy Kuhn.
During a freewheeling, 90-minute combination of cabaret and conversation, LuPone treated the audience to renditions of a few songs from “Evita’’ — including “Buenos Aires’’ and “Rainbow High’’ — that she hadn’t performed in 30 years, according to Art House producing artistic director Mark Cortale. She also sang “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,’’ of course.
In one amusing interlude, Rudetsky played a snippet of LuPone’s performance of “Rainbow High’’ from the original Broadway production of “Evita,’’ then a recording of Madonna singing the same lyrics in the 1996 film version (a movie that LuPone said she has never seen). The comparison did not favor Madonna.
Nor would Madonna, or many other singers, fare too well when compared with today’s LuPone, either. Even though she coughed a few times to clear her throat between songs at the Art House, her voice retained its thrilling power once she took hold of the microphone, and not just when engaged in the sort of full-throttle belting that is her trademark. (“Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, it was rock ’n’ roll for me, but I knew I had a Broadway voice,’’ she told Rudetsky at one point).
LuPone can draw upon a vocal palette of emotional colors that few others possess. When delicacy is called for, she can shrink her larger-than-life persona down to a whispery vulnerability. During her version of “It Never Was You,’’ a ballad of lost love by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, LuPone ventured to the trembling edge of heartbreak. When she sang Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive,’’ from “Company,’’ LuPone brought a life-or-death urgency to the protagonist’s plea (“Somebody hold me too close/Somebody hurt me too deep/Somebody sit in my chair/And ruin my sleep/And make me aware/Of being alive’’).
But the impish, raucous Patti was also much in evidence at the Art House, guided by Rudetsky’s breezy-but-knowledgeable questions and his expert piano accompaniment. She told the audience how, as a girl, she fell in love with the score to “West Side Story,’’ but faced the dilemma of wanting to play both Maria and Anita. “Here’s how I solved it,’’ LuPone said, then launched into a hilarious one-woman duet in which she rapidly alternated between Anita’s commanding “A Boy Like That’’ and Maria’s passionate “I Have a Love.’’
It was a reminder that one of LuPone’s strengths is her ability to act songs, not just sing them. She has a sizable body of non-musical stage work, and is slated to star on Broadway this fall with Debra Winger in “The Anarchist,’’ a new play by David Mamet.
When Rudetsky asked if there were any roles she regretted passing up during her career, LuPone had to search her memory before coming up with a big one: the role of Fosca in Sondheim’s “Passion,’’ which was offered to her just as she was about to embark for London to star in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of “Sunset Boulevard.’’
At Rudetsky’s urging, LuPone talked about her legendary eruption, much viewed on YouTube, at an audience member who was taking photos during a performance of “Gypsy.’’ She noted that she was singing “Rose’s Turn,’’ the harrowing climax of the show, and the spectator whom she hollered at had repeatedly taken pictures with a camera that had an automatic flash.
LuPone then delivered an impassioned and eloquent argument for the importance of confronting disruptive audience members as part of a broader fight to preserve our right to lose ourselves in the theatrical experience. Her right to make that argument is hard to quarrel with, given that she continues to do so much to make that experience a special one.