Patti LuPone stars in The Lady With the Torch at 54 Below.
Patti LuPone stars in The Lady With the Torch at 54 Below.
(© Seth Walters)

"It gets sadder," Patti LuPone blithely remarks during The Lady With the Torch at 54 Below. Indeed, many of the songs in her set are quite depressing. "Torch is short for torture," she opines, redefining "Torch Song" (a ballad of unrequited love) in her own special way. In fact, redefining songs is her forte.

Admittedly, it takes LuPone awhile to warm up in this show. Her first two songs ("By Myself" by Dietz & Schwartz and "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry" by Styne & Cahn) feel forced and inauthentic. LuPone puts all of her power in her nose and leaves it there in what feels like an exercise in self-indulgence.

It's in her third song, Billy Barnes' mellow jazz standard "Something Cool," that LuPone finally begins to take off. Wiping imaginary sweat from her hair, she brings an adolescent vulnerability to the song, like a 16-year-old feigning sophistication. This is LuPone's real talent: interpreting classic songs in new and unexpected ways, making them feel as though they were written just for her.

This being an evening of torch songs, LuPone has borrowed liberally from the staple songs of American's most notable unhappy chanteuses. There's Judy (Gershwin & DeSylva's "Do It Again"), Peggy (Robison & Conley's "A Cottage for Sale"), and Billie (the Gershwins' "The Man I Love"). LuPone puts her distinctive mark on each of these songs, projecting her pain out onto the rapt crowd.

Of course, not everything is so downbeat, and for that we have to thank Cole Porter. "C'est Magnifique" from the composer's Can-Can has the audience bouncing in their seats. A pepped-up rendition of Porter's "Find Me a Primitive Man" is also a sweaty, fun highlight, perfect for a hot summer's eve. Just watching LuPone navigate Porter's lyrics is a treat: Even as a large crash of dishes came from house left LuPone never missed a beat as she investigated the damage. Such adaptation to circumstance is the sign of a seasoned cabaret performer.

In a tribute to her fellow diva now departed, LuPone performs a ringing and hilarious version of Porter's "Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please" (first sung by original Broadway diva Ethel Merman in Panama Hattie). "This is dedicated to Elaine," she announces, eliciting thunderous applause from the audience. And the tributes don't end there.

"In honor of my grandmother: the Sicilian national anthem," LuPone says grandly before launching into Johnny Mercer's "I Wanna Be Around," a song of heartbreak and revenge. She builds the song into a frightful crescendo and you feel as though you're hearing the Great American Songbook pour out of the mouth of Sauron. (An occasional echo on the microphone solidifies this feeling.)

Truly, one of the pleasures of seeing Patti LuPone in cabaret is the way in which the band lets loose, unafraid to drown out the vocals of the performer (because they know they never will). She's backed up in this show by a six-piece band that includes brass, woodwinds, and some truly excellent percussion (Paul Pizzuti). Joseph Thalken is on piano, gracefully gliding through the bittersweet and jazzy passages in these songs.

You'll want to order a double and drown your sorrows with Patti, whether you have them or not. This show is the perfect respite from a failed romance or simply the oppressive summer heat.