Stardust in his eyes

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday June 7, 2017
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Patti LuPone pays Ben Rimalower a backstage visit after<br>one of his performances of "Patti Issues" in New York.<br>Photo: Jenny Anderson
Patti LuPone pays Ben Rimalower a backstage visit after
one of his performances of "Patti Issues" in New York.
Photo: Jenny Anderson

Ben Rimalower has had Patti issues for most of his life, from a harrowing childhood to an obsessed adolescence, and now to a career in which "Patti Issues" is a main claim to fame. The Patti, by the way, is Patti LuPone, and Rimalower will take audiences down the twisty memory lane of his particular Patti issues at Feinstein's at the Nikko on June 9 and 10.

As a child in the San Fernando Valley, Rimalower began his Patti LuPone obsession when he bought the "Evita" cast album that was heard nonstop in a household in the process of imploding. As a teenager who'd regularly visited family in New York, his fantasy moved to the reality of being able to see LuPone as Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard," in which she was to recreate her London role. "I had been sitting there in calculus class drawing in my notebook pictures of Patti LuPone winning the Tony for 'Sunset Boulevard,' and then an Oscar for the movie of 'Evita,'" he said. "When she got fired, I was devastated. And it gave me a sense of being protective over her."

As the years went by, he took it personally by what he saw as egregious miscasting of Bernadette Peters in Broadway revivals of "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Gypsy," roles that Rimalower thought rightfully belonged to LuPone. "After 'Anything Goes,' I thought Patti should be carrying on the Ethel Merman mantle, and it just seemed so unfair."

But after Rimalower dropped out of UC Berkeley in favor of a theater internship that would take him to New York, he got the chance not only to work with LuPone on several projects, but to become friendly with her, hindered, perhaps from the stardust he couldn't quite shake from his Valley Boy's eyes. "I think she considers me a friend," he said, "but to me, she'll always be a goddess first, friend second. I mean, I'm thinking about Patti LuPone all the time."

Ben Rimalower relates a traumatic childhood and eventual salvation through Patti LuPone in "Patti Issues," coming to Feinstein's at the Nikko on June 9 & 10. Photo: Gustavo Monroy

Rimalower began performing "Patti Issues" at the Duplex nitery in Greenwich Village in 2012, and he regularly returns there to perform both "Patti Issues" and a second solo show, "Bad with Money," in which he brings a comic, self-deprecating edge to his spending addictions, which have remained harder to corral than his drug and alcohol abuse. Bad checks, credit card fraud, and even prostitution in San Francisco while a student at Berkeley were among the ways he paid for what he couldn't afford.

But "Patti Issues," a word play on "daddy issues," has a wider trajectory and darker origins even as comedy remains the primary means of expression. "I've had a lot of issues, but I've always been cheerful and mostly been functional," he said. "My childhood was very stressful, and I think that was my survival tactic."

Rimalower was born in New York, but his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 6. "My father wanted to come out of the closet away from his oppressive parents," he said. "My mother thought they were moving for the sunshine."

It was not an easy transition for Rimalower's father despite the new surroundings. Alcohol, drugs, suicide attempts, and even a bit of arson were part of the household drama. "I was so traumatized by my father as a child, and in a way I also related to him because I was like him," Rimalower said. "I think the powerful sort of scary female figure, like the Wicked Witch in 'The Wizard of Oz,' or Joan Collins on 'Dynasty,' that's who I was attracted to as a little boy. And Patti on the 'Evita' album and commercials really exemplified that for me. I felt she was my dragon, even though she had that scary quality that reminded me of my father, but with Patti I felt empowered by it."

After his parents divorced, and he was adopted at age 10 by his mother's second husband, he was mostly estranged from his father. But in a you-can't-make-this-stuff-up coda, when LuPone finally got her chance to play "Gypsy" in 2008, Rimalower discovered that his father was sitting right behind him in the theater. "We were friendly-ish, and have reconnected at different points, but just not in a way that has lasted. To say I don't care is disingenuous, but I'm resolved to it."

Rimalower has performed "Patti Issues" several times in the Bay Area, but his upcoming gig at Feinstein's is the most upscale venue. He was represented at the old Plush Room with his production of "Leslie Kritzer Is Patti LuPone at Les Mouches," with Kritzer offering a recreation of LuPone's long-running Midnight cabaret show after Saturday performances in "Evita" in 1980. Lupone had given Rimalower a grainy video of one of the performances, and with LuPone's blessing, he and Kritzer brought back to life the idiosyncratic performances, repertoire, arrangements, and patter " cocaine-fueled, Rimalower has no doubt " that became performance art in the Kritzer recreation.

But when a deal was struck to record the new performance, LuPone "freaked out and put the kibosh on it," Rimalower said. "Not that I deceived her, but she thought it was going to be a cute one-night-stand and not become so successful." A lawsuit was mentioned, something noted in "Patti Issues," but the story had a happened ending.

"It seemed a crime that the Les Mouches thing would remain this secret legend," he said. But working with audiotapes made during her Midnight performances, and cleaning them up with modern technology, Rimalower was able to produce a recording of the real thing. "I believe Patti's words to me were, 'My voice, recordings of me, make it happen.'"

Between performances of his solo shows, Rimalower also works as an actor and a director. But no matter what else comes, he doesn't see himself tiring of his Patti show. "Are you kidding? I'll be doing this in my grave." He does have a general idea for a third solo show. "I think the title is going to be 'Smoking Cock.'"

 

Tickets for "Patti Issues" are available at (866) 663-1063 or ticketfly.com.