Ben Rimalower insists he's never had any thespian-minded aspirations, but anyone who's seen his autobiographical new show, Patti Issues, is likely to leave convinced the natural entertainer has picked up more than a few cues from his longtime idol, Patti LuPone.
Currently playing at The Duplex in New York City, the show illustrates the veteran theater director and producer's admiration for the Tony-winning Broadway legend in colorful detail as implied by its title; in fact, Rimalower's journey from the starstruck Evita fan of his youth to his work as an assistant director on LuPone's more recent turns in A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd would be entertaining enough in its own right.
But Patti Issues is more than just 75 minutes of diva worship, and Rimalower has wisely given his one-man performance piece a much-needed emotional core by balancing out the LuPone anecdotes with a compelling exploration of his troubled relationship with his gay father, who came out of the closet when Ben was 8 years old. Incorporating these dual, if disparate, motifs would prove deadly in any other show, but Rimalower is able to weave them into a surprisingly cohesive narrative. Personal and professional specifics aside, Patti Issues touches on a number of all-inclusive themes -- from a love of Broadway musicals to early struggles with an emerging sexuality to a fractured relationship with a dysfunctional (and frequently absent) parent -- that will particularly resonate with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) audiences.
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"I wanted to write a show about my experiences with Patti because she's been so important to me, and I love to talk about that and think about that," the 36-year-old Rimalower, who has also worked extensively with a number of Manhattan-based cabaret artists, including Cole Escola and Molly Pope, told me. "But I realized that while I could go on and on about Patti LuPone in a way that would only be interesting to people who care, that's not the project I ultimately wanted to write here."
While many of Rimalower's childhood experiences are uncomfortable to take in (a blow-by-blow recollection of his father's suicide attempt during a family vacation is downright chilling), Patti Issues is, at its heart, a bona fide cabaret act, and the show includes points of all-out hilarity that keep the darker segments from becoming overwrought. Witness, for instance, Rimalower playfully comparing the famed 1979 commercial for Evita on Broadway to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, or discussing his enthusiasm at being summoned by LuPone to an Upper West Side apartment for an impromptu Sweeney Todd rehearsal.
While he does a number of tongue-in-cheek impressions of LuPone in the show, Rimalower says it was another impersonation that ultimately proved more cathartic. "Some of the material that I do as my father ... helped me to find sympathy for him in a way that I hadn't had my entire life," he says, noting that he wasn't prepared for "how much emotional impact" performing the show would have on him night after night.
Still, one can't help but wonder how LuPone (who gave Patti Issues her personal thumbs up after attending an early performance) must've felt upon learning that Rimalower's descriptions of their working relationship dip into warts-and-all territory, as they do in a number of the show's latter moments. For his part, Rimalower shrugs off the implication that his portrayal is in any way unflattering to the star, who is currently in rehearsals for David Mamet's The Anarchist.
Acknowledging LuPone's "cutthroat fierceness and laser focus," Rimalower adds, "I thought she would respect the show for telling the truth, at least my truth."
Fortunately for New York audiences, that "truth" makes for an inspired performing debut -- the impact of which Rimalower hopes will live on beyond his show's initial West Village run. While the sensibilities many gay men share with their favorite stage divas have been dissected countless times in popular culture, never has such an analysis been so engagingly written and cleverly presented.
Ben Rimalower's Patti Issues is now playing at The Duplex in New York City through Feb. 28, 2013. For more information, click here.
I asked Ben for his candid thoughts on 11 definitive Patti LuPone performances. Here's what he had to say:
"This is pretty definitive Patti. You get close-ups of her thrilling singing and acting in this dramatic sequence from Evita. And then when she comes downstage to deliver those rangy cadenzas, well, they test the mettle of anyone playing Eva, but no one will ever tear through them as ferociously as Patti."
"Speaking of ferocious, this 'Rainbow High' performance -- the solo version as Patti performed it in her nightclub act at Les Mouches -- is almost too much. Patti's balls-to-the-wall flair would surely give any drag queen a run for their money, but what drag queen could be as terrifying or sing those high notes as clearly?"
"I like to think this is what Patti would be like as Anita in West Side Story -- just a sassy, salty sprite. For anyone who's ever fast-forwarded though the long musical interlude in 'Buenos Aires,' it's a pleasure to watch Patti jauntily nod at the conductor and go straight from the bridge into the third verse. Of course, the real pleasure is that bridge; Patti's effortless and bright belting of those C-naturals popping up to the F-sharp ('And if ever...') is joyful and virtuosic."
"I love this performance! I think the song is called 'Pittsburgh.' I'm pretty sure it's by David Nichtern, who wrote 'Midnight at the Oasis' and was Patti's musical director for a few years in the 1980s. I once had lunch with Patti and David to talk about recording a dance track for Patti! I still want do it!"
"Did someone say joyful and virtuosic? Patti is all leather lungs and sass. This was not her regular wig in the show, and you can see where it causes problems in the choreography, but I don't care. She looks so pretty!"
"It's cool to see Patti in the full Fantine drag, although this cut of the song always bothers me here, and on the Olivier Awards from 1985 and at the Les Miz 21st anniversary or whatever. I like on this same broadcast when she does 'I'd Do Anything' with the boys from a different Oliver revival than hers. What's the difference?"
"Whoever posted this wrote 'classy,' and they're right. Patti looks like a million bucks and sings even better. This is the best recorded version of her doing 'Bewitched,' although nothing can compare with the magic of seeing her do it live in Pal Joey at City Center in 1995 -- all 1,700 verses!"
"If anyone holds up the Judy/Barbra mantle, it's Patti and Audra, and this is perfect proof. I hear that in concert they sometimes switch parts -- I'd love to hear that, too! This is magical, though, on Rosie right after Sept. 11. Their sweet harmony was a much-needed tonic."
"This video is my everything. Look at her throwing shade on 'Mrs. Mooney has a pie shop.' And the voice, the voice, the voice! Stephen Sondheim told me, 'For a woman her age, well, any age, it's astonishing.'"
"No, this one is really my everything. Some people might wish you got the climactic 'Rose's Turn' on the Tonys broadcast, but Patti's performance is so galvanizing, you can't complain. Every single note gives me goosebumps, and her body almost balletic in the walk she stalks across that stage. Tremendous!"
"I always enjoy Patti belting this classic, but her most incinerating, vitriolic version by far was this one in 'Company' with the New York Philharmonic. I told Patti how much it had grown from her concert performances, and she said, 'It's a scene. I didn't have the information.'"
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