How many musical theatre stars genuinely deserve the accolade “legendary”? As the first Fantine in Les Mis and the first Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (until Lloyd Webber fired her), Patti LuPone’s reputation long precedes her, but more recently made the headlines for halting the penultimate Broadway performance of Gypsy just before its climactic scene to harangue an audience member taking snapshots from the stalls.

Sunday night’s audience of theatre professionals, friends and fans knew all this, and more, about the star and by the time accompanist, warm-up act and devoted LuPone acolyte Seth Rudetsky had whipped them into an adoring frenzy, they exhibited the fervour of a North Korean rally when she hove into view after the interval and began her trademark belt of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”.

Rudetsky himself is an hilarious and well-informed commentator but also a minor curiosity: in the States he broadcasts an internet radio show which “deconstructs” the singing performances of musical theatre artists in obsessive detail. His stage persona is nerdy, nebbish and overtly gay: it’s as though someone kept David Sedaris in the dark for several years and fed him only on boxed sets of Glee.

His opening forty minutes of video clips of off-kilter performances by less-than-contemporary performers like Lesley Uggams, The Osmonds, and a mid-70’s boiler-suited Shirley Bassey on an oil rig were amusingly narrated, but also creepily like the middle-of-the-night YouTube surfing slightly stalkerish gay men do when they can’t sleep to find the split notes and dodgy vibrato in Liza or Judy or Barbra’s black-and-white years. No? Just me, then. And him.

Whether LuPone was good, bad or indifferent wouldn’t have mattered to this audience, who applauded everything with intense enthusiasm. Fortunately, for the less obsessed who may have purchased tickets, she was mostly outstandingly good. Her voice is extraordinary: it does behave like “an instrument” and it’s wonderful to watch how she manipulates it, controlling the vibrato with a movement of her jaw rather than deep inside the throat and urging it upwards from her chest to land on notes from the greatest possible height and with such reserves of power it’s hard to recall she’s in her sixties, because not only doesn’t she look it, she absolutely doesn’t sound it either.

I loved “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, her “go-to” audition piece, and for a moment she was again the gawky 17-year old from Long Island cutting school to make casting calls. Apart from a couple of supernumary snatched breaths, she flawlessly demonstrated how it was her idea to add the rising cadence into “I Dreamed A Dream”, and even though I’ve sat at Elaine Stritch’s feet in the Café Carlyle to hear her “Ladies Who Lunch”, I though the gradually loosened restraint with which she acted it and the carefully placed consonants of LuPone’s version were even more magical.

Rudetsky’s schtick is to dump a stash of music on the piano and “randomly” fish out some of the things Patti should sing. This doesn’t work, because she can’t read the music or the lyrics in the stage light and, although she’s 90% accurate, there’s limited value in having her reprise songs she last rehearsed in 1983 when her career is still moving forward into new and exciting material. Even though she sent herself up for her terrible cockney accent, the carnage of “Short Measures” from Oliver was uncomfortable to watch.

There really is an “eleven o’clock number” – the third encore, two hours and 50 minutes after we’d started, is from the newish musical Jeffrey Lane and David Yazberg created from Almodovar’s Women On The Edge of a Nervous Breakdown, which LuPone says may be headed to London (whoops of excitement from the fanbase in the front rows), but when she sang “Invisible”, the tender and emotional courtroom petition to the magistrates, no-one in the whole theatre was in any doubt, not only that it should come to London, but that no-one in the world could play Lucia Beltran better than Patti LuPone.

Date reviewed: Sunday 16th June 2013