Had Patti LuPone played Norma Desmond in the Broadway production of "Sunset Boulevard," at least one major song might have been performed as a ferocious mad scene, replete with sudden mood swings and a momentary spasm of tears.
That is the hyper-emotional interpretation Ms. LuPone brought to "As If We Never Said Goodbye," from "Sunset Boulevard," at a recent preview performance of her one-woman show at the Walter Kerr Theater. It wasn't the show's only number in which the singer's eyes suddenly welled up.
Ms. LuPone played the song's crucial line, "I've come home at last," for all it was worth. In response, the audience gave her a spontaneous standing ovation. For a moment, she was a proud queen who had been stripped of her crown, returning from exile, her head held high.
Clearly, Ms. LuPone's personal wounds from having been dumped from "Sunset Boulevard" after its London production, in favor of Glenn Close, have not all healed. But just as clearly, she has found a way to make effective use of them in spinning her own Broadway legend: the legend of the jittery, vulnerable diva from Northport, L.I., who wears her insecurities on her sleeve.
The two halves of "Patti LuPone on Broadway," which had its official opening in a limited engagement last night, emphasize strikingly different sides of the star's personality. The weak first act is a cabaret show loosely modeled after Bette Midler's performances, in which Ms. LuPone appears gawky and nervous as a campy, boa-twirling pop chanteuse. The program's first act includes several Kurt Weill songs that the singer attacks aggressively but without finding much to express beyond her own edgy emotionality.
Ms. LuPone spends the bulk of the show's stronger second half reprising the high points of her musical-theater career, which took off in 1976 with "The Robber Bridegroom."
That retrospective begins with a big, sobbing "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," from "Evita," then backtracks to "Sleepy Man," from "Robber Bridegroom," and "Meadowlark," from the ill-fated show "The Baker's Wife." From there, the story plunges ahead to a revival of "Oliver!" ("As Long as He Needs Me"), followed by "Les Miserables" ("I Dreamed a Dream"), last spring's concert revival of "Pal Joey" ("Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered"), and the revival of "Anything Goes" (the title song) in which Ms. LuPone had one of her biggest triumphs in the Ethel Merman-originated role of Reno Sweeney.
The theater songs are prefaced with engaging anecdotes: of performing "The Baker's Wife" at the cavernous Kennedy Center in Washington before a nearly invisible audience of 25; of becoming so wrapped up in reading a magazine while waiting to go onstage in "Les Miserables" that she misses a cue; of getting married on the same Lincoln Center stage where she is appearing in "Anything Goes."
Ms. LuPone's quirky singing doesn't fit any of the conventional models of a Broadway musical performer. Her cottony voice, with its occasionally garbled enunciation, is not an instrument made to pierce to the rafters, and she has persistent pitch problems. In rangier numbers, the singing breaks down into different sub-voices. Her thickly textured crooning voice, when stepped up into belting intensity, turns into a coarse shout. When leaping up in pitch, she often uses a semi-yodel as a kind of vocal launching pad. Once there, the voice tends to float sweetly but not always purposefully.
The jerky phrasing that often accompanies Ms. LuPone's moves from one place to another adds to an overall sense of vocal disjointedness. Her stronger performances tend to be on big, declamatory ballads in which her voice stays in one place and the reflexive sob that introduces far too many phrases adds a note of hysterical involvement. Accompanying these songs is the kind of tasteless but crowd-pleasing gestures -- a flinging up of the arms, an exaggerated tossing back of the head -- associated with Shirley Bassey.
The show, directed by Scott Wittman, uses an ensemble of seven musicians and a smooth pop-swing vocal quartet, the Mermen, whose harmonies support Ms. LuPone like a satin cushion. The charming oddities they perform together include "Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens," a pop-swing number by Alex Kramer and Joan Whitney, and Irving Berlin's "Moonshine Lullaby." They also find a nice, relaxed groove with James Taylor's "Looking for Love on Broadway" and Julie Gold's bubbly pop love song "Heaven."
Underneath the insecurities and vocal disjointedness, Ms. LuPone conveys a touching bravery. In a way, she really is a queen in exile waiting for another crown, another role of a lifetime that will mobilize all the emotional energy anxiously flung throughout her one-woman show.