Diva nation

On the Way to Love

Patti Austin, working the mic.

Patti Austin, working the mic.

Rated 4.0

What’s a talented, 50-something pop singer to do? The notoriously youth-oriented recording industry is dominated by rappers, Cookie Monster rockers and Britney Spears. Hence, you find Paul Simon or Elton John scoring Broadway shows, while Paul McCartney and Billy Joel venture into so-called classical music.

Patti Austin—the star and subject of the new show at the Sacramento Theatre Company—has never quite become a household name. But she’s had a long and colorful career—appearing at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem as a child, doing Broadway musicals, earning good money as a backup singer and voicing jingles for ads, and scoring hits of her own under the guidance of godparent Quincy Jones.

Her life cuts a visible path through five decades, and she was multiracial before it was cool. Indeed, you could say that Austin—as a singer and a personality—is more interesting than much of the material she’s done. And that makes her show in Sacramento—On the Way to Love—a logical move, since it basically tells the story of her life.

At least, it does so in the first half, using old family photos, bits of narration and lots of songs, framed by a wisp of a story line. Austin shows her versatility, doing Broadway, gospel, Fats Waller, smooth jazz and more. Music director Greg Phillinganes provides lovely arrangements and leads a tight band.

But after intermission, the story fades and the show becomes a Patti Austin concert—a pleasant experience, even if it doesn’t lead anywhere in a dramatic sense. But even as a concert, it needs a bit more direction and focus. Several medleys feature Austin singing other people’s hits, and there’s a patriotic medley that feels like it was dropped into the show post-September 11. Austin’s “loose cannon” remarks are occasionally in evidence, but her political humor is nowhere to be found; director Peggy Shannon keeps the show affirmative and upbeat.

On the Way to Love is being groomed for a possible Broadway run. If the show’s second half is reorganized and upgraded to the point that it carries through on the (slender but necessary) narrative in the first half, Austin could have a pretty hot vehicle on her hands. In the meantime, it’s a good pop concert in a comfy theatrical setting.