He was just a boy when 37-year-old theatrical director, producer, actor and playwright Ben Rimalower first heard musical theater giant Patti LuPone sing “Don’t Cry for Me Argen-tina” in her Tony Award-winning performance as Eva Peron in “Evita.” But what he heard and how it thrilled him would set the stage for many of his future artistic endeavors, including a one-man show, “Patti Issues,” coming to the Creative Alliance at the Patterson on Jan. 25.
According to CA program director Megan Hamilton, “Patti Issues”is an example of the type of programming that the arts and cultural organization is committed to presenting to Baltimore’s LGBT community, as well as its Jewish community.
“We are super excited to have Ben,” said Hamilton, who noted that “Patti Issues” is one of several Jewish-themed performances and/or performers the Alliance has presented in the past several months.
“We recently had Andy Statman,” said Hamilton. “Wow! Beyond amazing. His virtuosic exploration of both the clarinet and the mandolin was truly unique and in its unabashed eccentricity, very Baltimore. We just had Charm City Klezmer with dance leader Stephen Lee Weintraub for their annual klezmer bash, and that was so fun. So Ben, besides being madly talented and bringing such a solid piece, helps us program to two of our favorite audiences.”
When he first became obsessed with LuPone and “Evita,” Rimalower was dealing with a real-life family drama, and he connected strongly with LuPone’s character in the play.
“She was a bitch with something to prove, and I felt thrilled by it, empowered,” he recalled. “I was also obsessed with Joan Collins from ‘Dynasty’ and the wicked witch from ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ A mild-mannered protagonist couldn’t hold my attention.”
When Rimalower was 8, his father, a successful obstetrician in Los Angeles, revealed that he was gay. Subsequently, his parents’ marriage ended, and Rimalower and his younger sister were eventually adopted by his mother’s second husband.
“My dad was very messy about this,” said Rimalower. “There were drugs, anger issues; for a couple of years, we were really dumped on by my father.”
Rimalower’s father attempted suicide, and a traumatized Rimalower spoke up and let his mother know that he and his sister were afraid of their father and no longer wished to have contact with him.
“It was a big deal then, having a gay father,” he said. “It was such a different time.”
Gradually, Rimalower realized that he too was gay.
“I knew I was different, and I hated boys,” he said. “All my friends were girls. So I thought I was a ladies’ man and was different from my father. But it was hard to maintain [that self-image]. I was struggling.”
In retrospect, Rimalower believes that his father’s coming out made it easier for him to come to grips with his own sexual identity: “My father knocked down that barrier in my family,” he said. “My mother’s brother came out shortly after. I couldn’t keep thinking I was a ladies’ man. It forced me to come out.”
After high school, Rimalower went to the University of California at Berkley, where he studied theater and started the university’s first theater company.
After graduation, he landed an internship at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, an experience he called “humbling and inspiring.”
When the internship ended, Rima-lower moved to New York City, where he took a position as an assistant on the television show “Spin City.”
“But I missed the theater,” he said. “After all, that was why I had come to New York.”
Rimalower became theatrical director Lonnie Price’s assistant for several years, helping to direct hit shows such as the New York Philharmonic’s 2000 gala presentation of “Sweeney Todd,” which starred LuPone. That was when Rimalower finally got the opportunity to meet his idol.
He was not disappointed.
“She really lived up to her persona in my mind,” he said. “She was exactly the diva I had dreamed of for all of these years. I’m kind of Patti’s type in that I’m obsessed with her.”
He added with a smile that sometimes when LuPone “needs a gay guy to go to a musical with her,” he is happy to oblige.
Rimalower and LuPone have since worked together on several projects, and LuPone was the inspiration for a 2006 show called “Leslie Kritzer is Patti LuPone at Les Mouches,” in which Broadway actress/singer Kritzer impersonated LuPone performing her legendary nightclub act from the 1970s. For the first time, Rimalower, who had always left script writing to others, was both directing and writing his own show.
“I was so intoxicated by creating that show without another writer,” said Rimalower.
Buoyed by the success of “Leslie Kritzer,” Rimalower started blogging.
“I found that personal essay-style writing worked for me,” he said. “And it [the blogging] became about me and Patti and my father.”
“Patti Issues,” which opened at the Duplex in Greenwich Village in August 2012, garnered terrific reviews. Since September 2013, the role of Rimalower has been played in New York City by Tony Award-winning actor Robin De Jesus; Rimalower plays himself in the traveling show.
“I’m so excited to be in Baltimore,” said Rimalower. “I get so much out of sharing [the show] with an audience. People should expect to laugh a lot. And it’s not only for the Patti-obsessed.”