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The Boston Globe

Theater & art

First stage role has actor/writer exploring his ‘Issues’

“Patti [Lupone] is so fierce. In her performances, she has a full-on, out-for-blood quality that I locked onto to distract me from the craziness at home,” said Ben Rimalower.

Larry Hamilton

“Patti [Lupone] is so fierce. In her performances, she has a full-on, out-for-blood quality that I locked onto to distract me from the craziness at home,” said Ben Rimalower.

Ben Rimalower laughs while admitting he’s a cliché — a gay man obsessed with Broadway divas. “I love them all,” he says, “but Patti has this ferociousness about her that I identify with.”

Patti is Patti Lupone, and Rimalower turned his fascination with the woman renowned for her goosebump-inducing performances into the long-running off-Broadway hit “Patti Issues,” which he brings to Boston’s Club Café Sept. 6 and 7.

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“Patti Issues” is a 60-minute monologue chronicling the transformative power of Rimalower’s relationship with LuPone, first from afar, and then as a colleague. It’s not a tribute. Rimalower’s story is about the perspective he gained from getting to know his idol as a mere mortal. In early versions of the script, developed with director Aaron Mark, Rimalower says they planned to use some videos of LuPone performing, “but we realized they were all Band-Aids. If I was going to say to the public, ‘This is my story,’ I had to be willing to commit to it.”

As a young child, Rimalower says he was obsessed with the commercial for “Evita,” the 1980 Tony Award-winning show that rocketed LuPone (and Mandy Patinkin) to fame. But it wasn’t until he was in junior high school in California that he discovered musical theater, particularly Andrew Lloyd Webber, and the original Broadway cast recording of “Evita.”

“Patti is so fierce,” Rimalower says. “In her performances, she has a full-on, out-for-blood quality that I locked onto to distract me from the craziness at home.”

The craziness involved a father who came out of the closet when Ben was 8, and immediately got involved with drugs and a string of boyfriends that left Ben, his mother, and his sister a wreck.

“I could say that Patti’s approach to her performances was a way to channel my inability to be angry and explosive toward my father, but I think my obsession with her just shows my good taste,” Rimalower says with a laugh.

The twist in Rimalower’s tale comes with his job as assistant director to Lonny Price on the 2000 New York Philharmonic gala concert performance of “Sweeney Todd,” in which LuPone starred. Through rehearsals, Rimalower developed a personal relationship with LuPone, even cataloging her collection of videotapes of her performances.

But Rimalower says that developing a personal relationship with someone he idolized was comparable to seeing a superhero as a real person, with all their flaws and humanity.

“In a weird way, it was easier to do that with Patti than it was with my father,” he says. “Getting to know her gave me some perspective on my father.”

“Patti Issues” emerged out of Rimalower’s fascination with that process. Although he has spent his career as a director, while also writing articles for Playbill.com and a blog for the Huffington Post, this piece is his first foray as a writer and a performer.

“I was never interested in being on stage,” Rimalower says, “but none of my friends are surprised that I’m doing this.”

The success of “Patti Issues” in New York is what led Rimalower to take the show on the road, even as it continues in New York with Robin de Jesus (“In the Heights”) playing Rimalower, opening Sept. 8.

“Robin is not someone who could be cast as me,” Rimalower says, “but I knew he would have the qualities that could play the show. He’s brilliant and appealing. It will be weird but fun to see him.”

Rimalower, meanwhile, is enjoying performing “Patti Issues” in selected US cities as well as Scotland and Germany, while he works on another autobiographical performance piece. “It’s another one-man show, this time more about my own struggles with addiction,” he says. “After Patti, I’m not quite ready to add more characters.”

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.
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