by Rod Hansen, Burlington Writers Workshop
Review of Patti LuPone’s “Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda” on Friday, March 7.
More than any other entertainment medium, live theater thrives on spontaneity; on priceless moments that could only happen right now, in this venue, before this audience. The packed house that turned out for Patti LuPone’s autobiographical performance Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda on Friday, March 7 enjoyed several such instances, to the delight of the performer and audience alike.
Along with presenting a bill of songs she’s sure she could have sang if given the opportunity (the Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda of the title), LuPone also treated the audience to others that served as early audition pieces and some she actually has performed onstage. Whatever the origin of the song, LuPone graced each one with a voice that could effortlessly climb octaves in a single verse, and sometimes reach the back rows without any amplification.
“I forgot my microphone!” LuPone exclaimed, coming onstage after intermission. “Should I just sing without the mike?” With audience encouragement, she proceeded unamplified, confident she could do it in “this house.”
After dropping that compliment to the Flynn Center, LuPone belted out Oh, What a Beautiful Morning from the musical Oklahoma with assurance, plus the vocal firepower to fill the house without any electronic assistance.
This moment of surprise led directly to another, when LuPone reclaimed the mike and whispered to the audience, “I’ve got a treat for you tonight!”
With that, 20 members of the youth performing program the Flynn Show Choir Select joined LuPone onstage for two rousing numbers, opening with Ya Got Trouble from The Music Man. During their literal 15 minutes of fame, the young troupe showed mastery of chorography, glorious harmonizing, and the presence of a professional stage company. Wiping her eyes with the back of her hand as the young performers exited the stage, LuPone called out, “They weren’t supposed to make me cry!”
The surprise emergence of the teen singers marked a highlight in an evening of highlights. The youth choir’s appearance aside, for the rest of the two-hour concert LuPone and pianist Joseph Thalken were the sole musicians onstage. Together, they filled the hall gloriously. With LuPone’s soaring voice, Thalken’s cascading piano runs, plus just the right amount of lighting and stage banter, they held the audience spellbound for an evening of intriguing stories and songs.
A few minutes into the performance, LuPone recalled her feelings of being onstage during the earliest part of her performing career. “I felt safe onstage, thinking, ‘Nobody can hurt me up here; I can do whatever I want up here.’ So that’s what I’m going to do tonight. Anything I want.”
The show’s song list consisted primarily of numbers she wished she’d gotten a chance to perform onstage, as well as some she did. “Some songs I wanted to sing, but other people sang them. And some of the songs I sang, I never should have, according to the New York Times,” LuPone kidded.
With pianist Thalken providing expert accompaniment, LuPone approached all the songs in the Flynn appearance with the gusto of a master entertainer. Numbers such as A Wonderful Guy from South Pacific, Everything’s Coming up Roses from Gypsy, and Ladies who Lunch from Stephen Sondheim’s Company showed LuPone could wrap her voice around a song and send it out to the audience with the grace of a peerless songbird.
The Sondheim song is among those LuPone has performed onstage. Her Flynn show also included a rendition of Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina from Evita, a production that won her a Tony Award for her Broadway portrayal of Eva Perón in 1979.
Not all of LuPone’s roles brought her similar glory. One of the evening’s most painfully funny stories involved her participation in the 1976 production of The Baker’s Wife, which concluded its run at the Kennedy Center with the ignoble achievement of being the least-attended show in the history of that venue.
Other stories from her upbringing and her years in theater lent a depth of humanity to her onstage history. Memories she shared included childhood performances on a friend’s front porch, of learning Broadway tunes by listening to the Ed Sullivan Presents cast recordings her mother brought home from the store, and finally reaching the point in her early career when she required a promotional head shot.
“The photographer got a butcher knife and took a picture of me with it. And we wonder where reputations come from,” LuPone joked.
LuPone’s Flynn Center appearance easily confirmed her reputation as a show business great. The event came to feel like a visit with a longtime friend, with LuPone often sharing her foibles as well as her glories. At the end of the evening, she renewed her trust in the audience by again performing a song with no microphone, powered only by her own vocal cords and the rapt attention of her audience.
It was a risky move, but one executed with confidence. Because she was onstage, and all her life she’d known that onstage, she was safe. Onstage, no one could hurt her.
Onstage, she can do anything.