If you know Patti Lupone, you know she’s not someone to be messed with. For more than 30 years, this diva has ruled Broadway with an iron-clad grasp and a voice that says, “Fuck you, I’m amazing,” with every soaring note. Even as a child, Ben Rimalower could sense this power. Soon, he became obsessed and in his one-man show, “Patti Issues,” Rimalower traces his relationship — from fan to fan adjacent to working partner — with this complex but towering Broadway broad.
Upon superficial inspection, this might seem like an hourlong fan magazine — the kind with pictures cropped to appear as if you and your celebrity devotee are the best of friends. This is not “Patti Issues.” Nineteen years ago, Ben Rimalower came to the UC Berkeley campus with dreams beyond finding original Broadway cast recordings of “Evita.” Though, he does admit to “majoring in buying Broadway-related CDs.” No, Rimalower came to Berkeley with the hope of training as a theater director. When the then-called Drama department refused to fund productions by underclassmen, he founded BareStage Productions — now a staple of the Berkeley campus theater culture. And it was on this stage, in Choral Rehearsal Hall, where Rimalower recounted not only his love for Patti, but all the “issues” — familial, emotional, creative, etc. — in between.
Unlike Lupone, who wore full-length ball gowns in “Evita” and an elaborate sailor’s uniform as Reno Sweeney in “Anything Goes,” Rimalower came onto the stage with a casual manner. The look was classic — vest, button-down, tie — but not showy. However, once the monologue began and he started speaking at a mile-a-minute pace, gesticulating madly and punctuating his punchlines with a fierce and wry passion, it became clear that despite the minimal dressings, there was more drama in this one-hour story than possibly in the whole of Lupone’s most theatrical flourishes.
Rimalower’s tale — which spans nearly the same 30 years from the premiere of “Evita” in the early ’80s to present day — is one that could only be delivered with this type of manic, unbridled energy. At the same time he was discovering Lupone, his father was living as a closeted gay OB/GYN. He was, in Rimalower’s words, a man “who has no balls,” the kind of guy who “picks the bitch terrier” in Monopoly — “not the top hat.” This complicated and unstable relationship, riddled with guilt, shame, disappointment and confusion, ironically provides a solid foundation to a monologue that could easily spiral out of control.
Several times throughout, Rimalower seemed on the verge of just that. His breakneck pace, loaded exposition and arcane references to off-Broadway cabarets could be off-putting or scattered if this very personal, father/son backbone were not in place. Because for all the madcap dialogue and ostentatious fan-gushing, “Patti Issues” is, at heart, an intensely private and touching saga about self-discovery.
Toward the end of the show, things calmed down a little bit. Rimalower ends his monologue where it began — with Patti and his father. Only this time, he’s at “Gypsy” after having worked with Patti Lupone personally and having not spoken to his father for nearly 10 years. It’s an emotional moment that doesn’t need the piercing vibrato of a Broadway ballad to cement its importance.
Rimalower’s work is at its strongest during these quieter moments of reflection where we, the audience, get a chance to breathe and absorb all this fantastic tumult. Midway through, Rimalower quotes John Housman, who once said, “Patti has the smell of the gallows.” Rimalower may not have the “smell” of the gallows, but his performance of “Patti Issues” certainly has all the power and melodrama of life and death.
Contact Jessica Pena at [email protected].