PROVINCETOWN — “Success is longevity,’’ Patti LuPone declared during a conversation with host/pianist Seth Rudetsky at the Art House here on Saturday evening.
Well, she should know. It’s been nearly 3½ decades since her Tony Award-winning portrayal of Eva Peron in “Evita’’ made LuPone famous, but she had made her Broadway debut six years before that, playing Irina in “The Three Sisters.’’ Today, at 64, the singer-actress appears to be having the time of her life, to judge by her compulsively entertaining, frequently hilarious performance at the Art House, which was even better than her appearance here last year.
The distance between the roles of Irina and Eva — not to mention the distance between Chekhov and Andrew Lloyd Webber — was early evidence of the versatility and fearlessness that have since become hallmarks of LuPone’s career. That, and resiliency. She has tasted crushing professional defeat more than once; just last year she costarred with Debra Winger in a colossal Broadway flop, David Mamet’s “The Anarchist.’’
Yet LuPone just keeps going, a fact she slyly underscored Saturday at the first of four Art House performances by singing “My Way.’’ It’s a song closely associated, of course, with one larger-than-life figure, Frank Sinatra, and to a lesser but still significant extent with another, Elvis Presley. But LuPone grabbed onto “My Way’’ as if it had been written for her, especially when, with a slight crouch that suggested a prizefighter in the ring, she belted out these words: “But through it all when there was doubt/I ate it up and spit it out.’’
Another ode to defiant, against-the-odds individualism yielded another peak moment: “Some People,’’ from “Gypsy.’’ LuPone won her second Tony Award for her portrayal of Mama Rose in the 2008 revival, and her roof-raising rendition of “Some People’’ gave the audience a good idea why. One hand holding a microphone, the other balled into a fist, she barreled through to the song’s conclusion: “Some people sit on their butts/Got the dream, yeah, but not the guts/That’s living for some people/For some humdrum people, I suppose/Well they can stay and rot/But not Rose!’’
The audience leaped to its feet for a standing ovation, and even Rudetsky was momentarily speechless before asking the crowd: “Isn’t it cool to have these great Broadway moments re-created on this little stage?’’
Rudetsky and Mark Cortale, producer of the Broadway @ The Art House series, deserve credit for creating the relaxed-yet-focused conditions that allow those moments to happen in the 128-seat theater. The blend of performance, storytelling, and banter that drives the series is ideally suited to LuPone’s talents, personality, and willingness to dish.
Of her tempestuous years with former boyfriend Kevin Kline, she said blithely: “He was a Lothario. He was so great-looking, and everyone wanted him. So he obliged.’’ Of the blockbuster musical “Mamma Mia!’’: “You couldn’t pay me to go see that’’ show. But she was also eager to tell of the times she had been captivated as an audience member, describing how she was “gobsmacked’’ by the original production of “Sweeney Todd,’’ with Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, a role LuPone would later play herself, to acclaim.
There’s little world-weariness in her demeanor, but she conveys the sense of someone who’s seen it all. While working as a waitress in her youth, LuPone said, a “wannabe gangster’’ with whom she was acquainted asked her to sing; when she declined, he emphasized his request by producing a gun. She brought an inexpressible sadness to “Invisible,’’ an aging woman’s lament for lost love and eroding identity, from the musical adaptation of “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.’’
At one point, Rudetsky called up to the stage his former college boyfriend, Tod Winston, saying that “50 percent of our relationship was obsessing about Patti LuPone.’’ Then, while Rudetsky played piano, Winston and LuPone performed a lengthy sequence from “Evita.’’ (“This music sucks, let’s face it,’’ LuPone cracked.) Then she launched into a powerful rendition of “Buenos Aires,’’ also from “Evita,’’ in which Eva serves notice that she’s a force to be reckoned with.
LuPone cheerfully acknowledged one shortcoming in her portrayal of Nancy in a 1984 revival of “Oliver!’’ that closed after a couple of weeks, saying: “It was the ’80s in New York City, and I had better things to do at night than practice my Cockney accent.’’ But anyone who has ever seen her on stage knows that LuPone’s approach to her profession has been anything but cavalier, and in her serious moment at the Art House she touched on that fact. “Craft has gotten lost in this country,’’ she said. “And acting is a craft. You have to figure out how to maintain your craft.’’ She added: “It’s more than talent, it really is. I’ve been studying all my life.’’
Perhaps that’s why LuPone has had one of the great theater careers of our time — and why she appears far from done.Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.