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  • Patti LuPone: The Lady With the TorchWhat's a self-admitted non–Patti LuPone fanatic doing with her new solo recording from Ghostlight, The Lady With the Torch?

    Like any musical theatre devotee, I'm familiar with LuPone's work in a few major titles: How can you avoid her Eva Peron in Evita? It's one of the epochal creations in a theatre era that no longer allows many. Her belting on the original cast recording, which encompasses everything up to a G (in "A New Argentina" is rightfully the stuff of modern legend. Admittedly, her visual performance as preserved on the 1980 Tony Awards broadcast is less so, but a killer voice she undoubtedly had.

    Then something happened: She became a Star. The Broadway's Lost Treasures collection of Tony Award broadcast musical numbers shows her, scant years later, singing Evita's "Buenos Aires," dripping with a self-indulgent expressiveness not in evidence in the show's original Broadway cast recording. Her personality had bloated to dangerous extremes, she'd adopted a divalike attitude, and her voice was brimming with more poorly modified vowels than a high-school production of My Fair Lady. The original London cast recording of Les Misérables (1985) reveals all these qualities, as do audio and visual records of Reno Sweeney in the 1987 Lincoln Center Anything Goes. Her work there was lauded for many things, but when it came to intelligibly rattling off Cole Porter's witty, intricate lyrics... well, as she might have sung, fuggedabaaahtet.

    I never saw LuPone in her early triumphs; my exposure to her was primarily through those cast recordings, which I'm afraid only accentuated her lamentable way with words. So I approached The Lady With the Torch with apprehension, hoping she'd shed her old ways for good and was working here more in the vein of the restrained Mrs. Lovett she's currently playing eight times a week in the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, but fearing the worst.

    The results are somewhat inconclusive, but for the most part she delivers. Her powerful belt has darkened with time, but not to its detriment—it's a far more reasonable, mature sound now. And LuPone certainly knows how to turn it to her advantage: She's granted her voice so many smoky colors for this collection of 14 torch songs that she sounds as if she swallowed a pack of cigarettes. For this material, though, that's hardly inappropriate.

    Of course, since LuPone never does anything halfway, she at times overdoes it. More than once you're aware of her singing about pain, but not feeling it; this imbues some numbers with a narrative quality that distractingly overwhelms their emotional content. Nor is she capable of completely eschewing the brass she likely believes her fans expect: Her ending to "The Man I Love" (the Gershwins) is particularly wide, LuPone in ultimate Showstopper Mode.

    But when she allows herself to pull back and simply live within the lyrics, she can be highly affecting. "A Cottage For Sale" (Willard Robinson, Larry Conley) is equal parts heartbreaking and conversational; "I Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry" (Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn) hovers curiously (and tantalizingly) between laughter and tears, in that place that so many matters of the heart sit; and "I'm Through With Love" (Gus Kahn, Matt Malneck, Tom Adair) is awash with pitiable, naked resignation. Of course, not all her experiments are successful: Her "So In Love" (Cole Porter, from Kiss Me, Kate) is far too belty, practically squashing the song's fragile underpinnings of one-time love forever living in the realm of "almost, but not quite." Nevertheless, it's an interesting, gutsy take on the song, more appropriate here than it would ever be in an actual production.

    And how's her diction? Variable, though on the good side. If she too often gives the impression of massaging the words rather than the meaning behind them, munching on some diphthongs like she might potato chips, there's not one on the disc that can't be understood. Much of this can be attributed to Chris Fenwick's gentle conducting, and Jonathan Tunick's forgiving, clubby, and yes torchy orchestrations, which alone probably do more in keeping LuPone on her best behavior than merely the excellent song selection.

    Whether that will be enough to please her detractors is hard to say; there's undoubtedly too much LuPone as LuPone here to fully please anyone who doesn't buy the disc looking for exactly that. But if you're on the fence with her, as I so often am, you'll undoubtedly find enough to make The Lady With the Torch worth a listen or two.

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