It was obvious from the box of tissues, constantly sipped glass of water and uncontrollable bursts of coughing between songs that Patti LuPone wasn’t feeling 100 percent.
But even when not at maximum velocity, her voice – that torch of an instrument – bulldozed any note that might have been an obstacle.
At a packed Symphony Hall Friday night, LuPone, backed by the spectacular Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, performed a string of famed show tunes in the vocal workout she dubs “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda” (as in, songs she coulda sung, woulda sung, shoulda sung and, lest there be any concern that selections from “Gypsy” or “Evita” wouldn’t appear, did sing).
The first 30 minutes of the show – which repeats tonight – featured guest conductor Rob Fisher leading the ASO through overtures from “Sweeney Todd,” “Gypsy” and “West Side Story.” Along with being generous in his praise of ASO, Fisher was also refreshingly playful, even egging the audience to supply the “Mambo!” cry in the “West Side” piece.
After a 20 minute intermission, the luminous LuPone strode, beaming, across the stage in a lovely black pantsuit with a sheer wrapover, her shoulder-length hair partially pulled back.
LuPone’s act is a scripted stroll through her rise from teen hopeful to Broadway-bound starlet – what she thought was her big Broadway breakthrough, “The Baker’s Wife,” never made it to the Great White Way, but fortunately, she still sings the plaintive “Meadowlark” – but LuPone injected enough wry humor and personal details to keep the hourlong set from feeling too rote.
She, too, graciously stopped often to commend the ASO – “You’ve got a great orchestra – I hope you know that,” she told the crowd mid-show – which razzle-dazzled through LuPone’s fiery renditions of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”
She might have sniffled and fought a catch in her throat when speaking, but somehow, she always managed to not only hit the massive notes, but dig down for one more vocal explosion in anthemic ballads such as “As Long as He Needs Me” (from “Oliver!”).
Of course the audience – which leapt to its feet several times during the show – applauded rigorously when the ASO plucked the first notes of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” and LuPone, humorously starting the song with arms overhead in classic diva pose, delivered the ballad with pathos and power.
At the point where she could have ducked out early, citing that sticky throat, she instead stayed, swirling through a swoon-y arrangement of “The Way You Look Tonight” while snapping photos of the crowd with a disposable camera and delivering the poignant “I Was Here,” from the 2007 Off-Broadway show, “The Glorious Ones.”
One gets the feeling that LuPone, a theater pro of a caliber that barely exists anymore, would come onstage dragging an IV stand behind her rather than nix a performance. But it is curious whether she had the ASO play the first segment of the show alone to give her vocals time to rest.
Regardless, what fans will remember more is the end of the show, when LuPone came out for her second curtain call and sang, acapella and unmiked, “A Hundred Years From Today,” a sentimental capper from the 1933 Broadway show, “Blackbirds.”
If anyone needed evidence that singers such as LuPone are a rare and beautiful anomaly…well, you got it.
LuPone and the ASO perform again at 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall. For ticket info, go here: http://www.atlantasymphony.org/calendar.aspx