You really don’t need more on a stage than this: Patti LuPone, her hip slightly cocked, standing next to Mandy Patinkin, his hands gravely folded in front of him, with both of them singing — well, anything.
They open “An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin” — certain to be among Washington’s most memorable evenings of music and theater this year, by the way — with a lightly sung version of Stephen Sondheim’s caffeinated “Another Hundred People.” Before you know it they’ve immersed themselves into a generous scoop of “South Pacific,” playing the dialogue and hypnotically gliding into “A Cockeyed Optimist” and “Some Enchanted Evening,” cleverly capping that off with unexpected Sondheim songs on love and marriage.
Of course LuPone and Patinkin, two of the most acclaimed stage stars of their generation, could simply deliver big numbers from their hit shows. And they generously provide some of that, including two solos from their Broadway breakthrough together more than 30 years ago with “Evita.” LuPone’s still stately Eva and Patinkin’s ever-fiery Che actually drew squeals of delight from the Kennedy Center audience Wednesday night. (The show is in the Eisenhower Theater through Sunday.)
LuPone and Patinkin can swell up to showstopper scale with the best of them, as they remind you when LuPone sings from “Gypsy” and Patinkin reprises his antic rendition on Sondheim’s vaudevillian “God Why Don’t You Love Me Blues.” Yet you’d never mistake this artful enterprise for a showbizzy concert. It’s a quiet thing, to borrow a Kander and Ebb title that LuPone sings reflectively in the first act.
It’s intensely spare: the headliners dress simply and the stage is bare, adorned with little more than two dozen or so ghost lights. Pianist and musical director Paul Ford and bass player Dan Hall are to one side of the stage, playing intimate arrangements that sound rich and graceful. The intimacy is wonderful, and on Wednesday it prompted unusually keen listening from the mesmerized Eisenhower audience.
That coziness also leaves room for the full range of LuPone’s and Patinkin’s dynamism, with many scenes beginning as murmurs and smoldering toward lightly caressed melodies like “Somewhere That’s Green” and “In Buddy’s Eyes.” The style can seem offhand, but they are such thinking actors and apparently such lifelong great friends that nothing is careless. A lot of it is deeply polished, but it is also gloriously free and playful, like a frisky duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” that’s gone in 60 seconds and the novelty number that ends the first act with a comic chair dance. (The show’s choreography is by Ann Reinking.)
It’s theatrical wizardry, really, to watch LuPone and Patinkin casually talk through a scene and bloom into moving songs, Patinkin’s singular voice rumbling low and crooning high, LuPone’s singing full of trademark swoops and jabs. Patinkin directs and conceived the evening with Ford, and the sequencing of music is so full of surprises that it keeps you on your toes.
The effect is incandescent, and it’s tempting to say something about the pleasure of watching seasoned pros in full command. Although the performance sometimes takes a frankly long lens on life and love, LuPone and Patinkin also jokingly warn that if you’ve come to watch old folks, you’ve come to the wrong spot.
The better word is “mature,” for currently too much theater — especially musical theater — comes off like a bad case of arrested adolescence. This is rewardingly grown up, with two gloriously big personalities offering intelligent, heartfelt performances of a great batch of songs. To adapt one of the lyrics LuPone and Patinkin limn in this exquisite show, here’s to them. Who’s like them? Damn few.
Conceived by Mandy Patinkin and Paul Ford, directed by Mandy Patinkin. Production design, David Korins; lights, Eric Cornwell; sound design, Daniel J. Gerhard. Through Sunday at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets $95-$150. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.