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Concert review: Cyndi Lauper mixes nostalgia with freshness

Melissa Ruggieri

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Back in the Stone Age, when people listened to albums as a complete piece of art, when song order set a pace and allowed an artist to tell a story, Cyndi Lauper’s “She’s So Unusual” was one of the best of its era.

The 1983 release – which has now sold more than 16 million copies worldwide – launched Lauper’s career at a relatively late start for a pop star (she was 30). But her kooky persona intrigued the kids (hand raised over here!), while her multi-octave voice made their parents pay attention.

The album arrived at a time when multiple hits off one release were almost expected – Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” boasted seven singles the year prior to “She’s So Unusual” and Bruce Springsteen matched it the year after with “Born in the U.S.A.”

Lauper’s vibrant debut produced five hits, including her never-gonna-disappear anthem, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” the pensive and tender “Time After Time” and the slightly naughty synth-fest, “She Bop.”

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release (which is technically in October), Lauper and her five-piece band are zipping through the album top to bottom and in the process, achieving that rare feat of turning back time while still seeming ageless.

The crunchy “Money Changes Everything” opened her 90-minute set at Symphony Hall Tuesday, as Lauper, clad in a fuschia jacket, black corset and multi-colored pants that sparkled along with the lights spinning overhead, pranced, stomped and wailed with the vocal ability of her 30-year-old self (for the mathematically challenged, she turned 60 on June 22).

For years, Lauper has futzed with the arrangement for “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” sometimes coating it with a reggae beat, other times transforming it into a ballad. So it was a treat to hear the song in its (mostly) original incarnation.

Longtime fans had to enjoy novelties such as “When You Were Mine,” the fabulously synthesizer-laden version of the Prince tune, though a couple of songs  (“Witness,” especially) sounded exactly like what they were – album tracks that would never be more than reasonably entertaining filler.

Other hits were faithful recreations – “All Through the Night” pretty and twinkly, “She Bop” a fun romp complete with girly hiccups and Lauper’s recorder solo – while the ukulele-strummed interlude “He’s So Unusual,” the 1920s Helen Kane ditty that inspired Lauper’s album title, was a hoot to hear live.

The quality of Lauper’s voice is, amazingly, undiminished. But her vocals were occasionally too low in the mix, leading to a few muddled offerings (“I’ll Kiss You,” “Yeah Yeah”).

It was not, however, difficult to understand her when she chatted – seemingly endlessly sometimes – with the crowd after every few songs. In her trademark New York-Italianese, Lauper rambled through circuitous stories about her birth, running into KISS and Springsteen at a recording studio and the history of her “spiritual advisor” Capt. Lou Albano (remember the wrestling phase?).

She also told the crowd an interesting tidbit she shared in our recent interview – that the studio where “She’s So Unusual” was recorded is literally around the corner from the theater now showing “Kinky Boots,” the Broadway musical for which she just nabbed a Tony Award.

Although it took Lauper an hour and 10 minutes to present the 38-minute album, she tossed a few extra songs into the set to round out the night.

It didn’t matter if you’ve seen “Kinky Boots” or not (but you should – it’s tremendous fun); it’s always a luxury to hear Broadway composers perform their own material, and so it was when Lauper unleashed the disco ball thumper, “Sex is in the Heel,” the centerpiece of the musical.

While the highlight of the show for the band was the extended coda – directed by Lauper – to a tremendously fulfilling “Change of Heart,” the artistic pinnacle for Lauper came at the end.

Her back-to-back renditions of the infrequently performed “Hat Full of Stars” – a capella and gorgeous – and her favorite set-closer, “True Colors,” performed only with her dulcimer, showcased for anyone needing convincing that she’s one of the premiere female vocalists of any generation.

And still wonderfully unusual.  

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