She’s back. Better than ever. New York singer Patti LuPone returns to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival with a crisp new show featuring songs that made her name as a  Broadway star, as well as other personal favourites that inspired and shaped her progress. You could say they mean the world to her.

In 2010 she published a memoir of a career in music and theatre which began in the late 1960s and has continued for more than 50 years. As she wryly observes, it has even kept on going since 2010. So it is time for another memoir – a musical version of songs heard and remembered. She calls the show A Life in Notes and, as she describes it herself, it is one of high notes, low notes, love notes and (sometimes) wrong notes.

As she takes to the stage at the Festival Theatre, Patti LuPone is given a rapturous welcome. It was big when she last played here in 2018, but this time the full house is in full roar. The décor is minimal and elegant: a grand piano with a bowl of red roses, a backdrop of pastel lighting, and her outstanding band of two.

Musical director, the brilliant Joseph Thalken, is back again at the keyboard and, over to stage left, is a cluster of instruments and mics. This is the string section – guitars, mandolin and violin, all performed by the equally accomplished Brad Phillips. LuPone, stylish as ever in her black suit, opens with ”Song For You”. It is the first of many interesting choices. Written by Leon Russell, Ray Charles and Willie Nelson, it is a reflective ballad, tinged with weary regret – “I’ve been so many places… I’ve acted out my life in stages /with ten thousand people watching.” But there are no traces of Leon, Ray and Willie here. As with every song performed, LuPone’s vocals are unequivocally hers.

The mood and tempo swiftly shift to Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House” and the first of Patti’s memories of temps perdu. Northport High School in Long Island New York is an important part of her early musical education and remains a continuing connection (in fact she used the current Northport choir as backup in her live recorded set, Don’t Monkey with Broadway).

She recalls the intensity of late ’50s teenage emotions, crushes on Disney heart-throbs like Tommy Kirk, or the later, more sultry, vibes of Troy Donahue. The Jamies’ 1958 hit “Summertime, Summertime”, with doo-wop harmonies from the boys in the band, captures the angst of early ’60s pop. Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel” – Romeo and Juliet in a car wreck – is perfectly evoked, as is “Town without Pity “with LuPone out-doing Gene Pitney in the aching operatic, high register lamentation department.

But there is nothing strictly chronological about the setlist. It is instead an emotional timeline – so the tortured Mark Blitzstein’s “I Wish it So” and Eartha Kitt’s “Lilac Wine” fit right in with the theme of late teen heartbreak.

The selections are intriguing – the rapid-fire Broadway lyrics of Jule Styne’s “Some People”, the feminist reflection on Burt Bacharach’s often flippantly performed “Alfie”, and a more-in-anger-than-in-sorrow take on Judy Garland’s “The Man That Got Away,” renders the well-known much less comfortably familiar.  That also goes for the Act One closer – Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days” in a more elegiac key.

The strong second half – LuPone is back in a silvery gown – is also notable for the freshness of the arrangements. The standard, “On Broadway”, is performed with piano and a vamping mandolin; “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” is freed from orchestral histrionics by a mournful Spanish guitar.

It took a while, but when LuPone swivels back from the piano with a martini glass in her hand, it is time for Stephen Sondheim. And, of course , it is the acerbic “Ladies Who Lunch” from Company, sung by Joanne, a role reprised by LuPone in 2022, earning her a third Tony Award.

Conceived and flawlessly directed by Scott Wittman, A Life in Notes not only showcases LuPone’s brilliance as a performer but illuminates the song selections. The medley of songs about time, beginning with Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye”, re-framed as a 1980s AIDS lament, morphing into “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was” by Lorenz Hart and concluding with a terrific version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”, is not only intuitive but gives each song exponential effect.

This ledger of musical memories also includes Bob Dylan. He has briefly had a Frank Sinatra phase himself, but only Patti Lupone can extrude real feeling from the rather hackneyed “Make You Feel My Love”. And, “Forever Young” was begging for inclusion, even if it runs perilously close to becoming a Boomer singalong.

Lennon and McCartney’s lambent ballad” In My Life” made an apt encore with LuPone again showing how she can magnify the emotion and implication of lyrics without excess. Another captivating moment in this splendid masterclass in cabaret was “Stars”, the wistful Janis Ian song. “Stars, they come and go/ They come fast or slow/They go like the last light…”.

That may be true, but Patti LuPone is still burning brighter than ever.

Patti LuPone – A Life in Notes was performed once only on June 19 at the Festival Theatre. The Adelaide Cabaret Festival continues until June 22.    

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