Since we live in a time when the currency of fame has been Kardashianed to near-worthlessness, it helps to be reminded how much a genuine star can matter to a kid in need of inspiration, consolation, or just plain diversionary entertainment.
Patti LuPone was that star, and Ben Rimalower was that kid, and he tells us all about it in his heartfelt and cleverly constructed solo show, “Patti Issues,’’ which he performed at Club Cafe on Friday night.
An autobiographical monologue that doubles as a cultural anatomy of fandom, “Patti Issues’’ suggests that LuPone’s fabled voice helped Rimalower find his own, in a way. He focuses heavily on his struggles during childhood and beyond to cope with a loose cannon of a father, making it clear that he drew strength from the example of what he called LuPone’s “fierceness.’’
A likable figure in a dark vest and red-soled sneakers who is now in his mid-30s and has directed and produced off-Broadway shows, Rimalower freely acknowledged being obsessed with LuPone. Like many of the musical-theater legend’s admirers, Rimalower grew up listening to the cast album of “Evita’’ over and over again. Speaking in the present tense, as he did for much of the evening, Rimalower recounted his youthful epiphany upon first hearing her sing “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina’’ and the other “Evita’’ songs: “I am higher than I will ever be. Drunk with LuPone, I rush out to get all her CDs.’’
But Rimalower holds a rare distinction among the Patti-
obsessed in that he actually got to work with his idol. Serving as an assistant director in 2000 on a staged production by the New York Philharmonic of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical “Sweeney Todd,’’ in which LuPone played Mrs. Lovett, he was virtually hypnotized by the sight of her in rehearsal: “I want to inhale her. I want to memorize her.’’ He leaped at the chance to run lines with her at her apartment, and was rewarded when she sang tune after tune from “Sweeney Todd.’’ A private concert: Every fan’s dream.
But after beginning on that giddy high, their relationship hit a snag after Rimalower created a show in which singer Leslie Kritzer re-created LuPone’s 1980 performances at Les Mouches, a New York nightclub. LuPone left him an icy phone message objecting to the show and informing Ben he would be hearing from her lawyer. They reconciled, though, and Rimalower produced a terrific album of the Les Mouches performances, drawing on LuPone’s original recordings. She showed up at a performance of “Patti Issues’’ last year in New York, and subsequently lavished praise on the show.
Rimalower’s monologue came most fully to life at Club Cafe when he channeled LuPone’s larger-than-life insouciance: mimicking the way she addresses people as “doll’’ and referred to the New York Philharmonic as “the band,’’ amusingly impersonating her sardonic acceptance speech when she received the Tony Award for her performance as Mama Rose in the 2008 Broadway revival of “Gypsy.’’
The mood was considerably darker whenever he turned to his childhood, which got especially bumpy after his family moved to California. Shortly before Ben’s ninth birthday, his father came out of the closet. His parents split up, but the father remained a presence in the lives of Ben and his sister — not in a good way. According to Rima-lower, the father had a drug problem, once attempted suicide while Ben and his sister were nearby, used vile words to describe their mother, and complained constantly about paying child support.
Rimalower poignantly described how he needed to turn to his father as he became aware of his own homosexuality. They apparently reached a brief détente, but, as depicted by Rimalower, the father was too much a prisoner of narcissism and emotional exhibitionism to ever really be there for him, including when Ben found himself in financial difficulty and facing eviction. His voice took on an edge of anger in “Patti Issues’’ whenever the father entered the picture.
Near the end of “Patti Issues,’’ Rimalower told the story of a remarkable coincidence, when two prime forces in his life — Patti-centricity and family conflict — converged at a Broadway performance of “Gypsy.’’ There, sitting right behind him, was the father who repeatedly let him down, and there, onstage, was the performer who helped him get through it.