Patti LaBelle has returned to Broadway with a one-woman show that, compared with the hysterical excesses of the past, is a model of discipline and restraint. The 41-year-old Philadelphia pop-soul singer, who stands on the brink of major stardom after nearly 25 years on the stage, has been known to spend a good portion of her shows lying flat on her back and wailing to the rafters. Though her new show at the Minskoff Theater is by no means a chilly affair, such antics are kept to a minimum.
The show, whose run has been extended through March 16, is a shrewdly conceived blend of pop-gospel intensity and sleek Las Vegas glamour. In contrast to the frenzied, emotional roller-coaster rides of old, it builds steadily in power, climaxing with a magnificent rendition of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' early 1970's Philadelphia soul ballad ''If You Don't Know Me By Now.''
A performer who effuses friendliness and an all-embracing emotional generosity, Miss LaBelle was at her finest on Wednesday singing sweeping humanitarian ballads. High points of the show included a pop-gospel rendition of Bob Dylan's ''Forever Young,'' ''Oh, People,'' written by Andy Goldmark and Bruce Roberts, from her forthcoming album, ''Winner,'' and a medley of her longtime signature song ''You Are My Friend,'' with ''What a Friend We Have in Jesus.'' Some of the show's most exciting moments also came from a call-and-response between the singer and Sam Peake, the excellent horn player in the band, led by her longtime musical director, James (Bud) Ellison.
Miss LaBelle is a singer with three very distinct voices that she weaves to highly dramatic effect. One voice is a relatively conventional pop purr, the second an insinuating meow that recalls Nell Carter and the sassier side of Dinah Washington, and the third a piercing metallic wail that she unleashes at peak emotional moments. Other trademark mannerisms include a slow, sirenlike whoop that carries a single syllable up an octave or more, the repetitive fixation on two or three short syllables within a verse that become a pop variant of talking in tongues, and a plaintive yodel used to embellish dramatic high spots.
Where in past performances, Miss La Belle often overused these devices so that her singing descended into exhibitionistic display, on Wednesday she integrated her mannerisms into the material in a way that consistently served the songs.