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New Club, but a Legend’s Familiar Face

06.13.12
Patti LuPone
The New York Times

By Stephen Holden

Patti LuPone Is First Headliner at the Cabaret 54 Below

Descending a staircase into 54 Below, the funky-elegant new cellar cabaret on the site of the legendary disco Studio 54, I had a fantasy of visiting a speakeasy where the password for entry was a furtively whispered “verboten.” Because the star was Broadway’s tempestuous dark empress, Patti LuPone, singing an international program titled “Far Away Places,” the prospect of a globe-trotting musical journey back in time — when “verboten” conjured forbidden pleasures in exotic locales — was all the more tantalizing.

Nowadays Ms. LuPone generates more raw excitement than any other performer on the Broadway and cabaret axis, with the possible exception of Liza Minnelli. At 63, she embodies decades of show business history. And her brilliant show, conceived and directed by her longtime collaborator, Scott Wittman, deserves many lives, perhaps even a Broadway run in an expanded edition. It certifies Ms. LuPone’s place in the lineage of quirky international chanteuses like Lotte Lenya, Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf, who, like Ms. LuPone, conquered show business with forceful, outsize personalities while playing by their own musical rules.

The performance I attended Friday was a preview, and because the gas had yet to be turned on, the kitchen wasn’t operating. (The show officially opened Wednesday night.)

The club has the intimacy of a large living room with unimpeded views and impeccable sound; there is not a bad seat. Its sultry after-hours ambience is enhanced by brocade-patterned wall panels planted with orange-shaded lanterns. And the atmosphere is warmer and sexier than in Manhattan’s other major supper clubs. The cabaret resembles a hybrid of the recently closed Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel and Joe’s Pub, at the Public Theater, but with much better sight lines.

The theme of the show was announced in the opening number, “The Gypsy in My Soul,” followed by Willie Nelson’s “Night Life,” after which Ms. LuPone joked about her lifelong wanderlust and reminisced about the “fabulous” old days before Times Square was cleaned up.

Ms. LuPone was born to sing the louche songs of Brecht and Weill, and the arrangements for a limber quintet — led by the pianist Joseph Thalken and featuring an accordion, banjo, violin, and guitar — lent the music a pungent Weimar flavor. Especially evocative were Mr. Thalken’s lilting 1930s hotel orchestra-style jazz arrangements of “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Travelin’ Light,” which Ms. LuPone invested with a wistful, torchy sensuality.

The show’s dramatic high point was a feral, scary interpretation of “Pirate Jenny,” the murderous revenge fantasy from “The Threepenny Opera,” delivered with a sneering glare that could turn you to stone. No one, save perhaps Maria Callas, has expressed more fury through a curled lip and an evil eye than Ms. LuPone, who can deploy the same features as easily for farce.

During the show the raging diva was balanced by the commedia dell’arte clown with “Sicilian blood,” as she joked, in an uproarious monologue about making a film in southern Italy. She even rapped, in Cole Porter’s “Come to the Supermarket (In Old Peking).” Her volatile inner clown found its ultimate outlet in “By the Sea” from “Sweeney Todd,” in which she reinvented the character of Mrs. Lovett as pure id: a demented overgrown baby, babbling obsequiously.

The dictum that less is more doesn’t apply to Ms. LuPone. She makes more of more, and in today’s age of excess in all areas of show business, that’s hard to do.

Because 54 Below, unlike Manhattan’s other supper clubs, is a stand-alone operation, its long-term future depends on building a loyal patronage. At least it knows exactly what it wants to be: “Broadway’s nightclub,” its advertising calls it. After Ms. LuPone’s run ends Saturday extended engagements are booked for Andrea Martin, Brian d’Arcy James, Ben Vereen and Jenifer Lewis, with many other performers appearing for one or two nights. Ideally 54 Below will establish itself as an intimate must-attend clubhouse for New York’s closely knit musical-theater community and its supporters. I know I’ll be there.