Show business is full of emperors with no clothes, flashy performers who spend fortunes on effects and gloss, and employ legions of support, merely to disguise a core lack of substance. Then there are emperors who don’t need clothes. Mandy Patinkin is one such monarch.
Performing a one-man show (with backing by his longtime accompanist Paul Ford), Patinkin works in a style that, for lack of a better term, is classified as cabaret. But this is cabaret that could work only in a larger venue like the Doolittle; the performer’s personality is simply too expansive to fit in the Cinegrill, or New York’s Cafe Carlyle.
That personality, which takes him from a soul-wrenching version of the “Soliloquy” from “Carousel” to a hilarious take on “Honey Bun” from “South Pacific” (aided to great effect in the latter by three audience volunteers), makes any fancy staging or big productions seem superfluous. Indeed, he is dressed in black T-shirt and pants and running shoes, and the empty stage is decorated only with two baskets of flowers Patinkin brings out at the start of the evening.
The equally dressed-down Ford performs at a simple upright piano — suggesting a rehearsal, as does the work light at the rear of the stage — with his back to the audience the entire evening.
Patinkin’s over-the-top performing style won’t be to everybody’s taste. In an era where coolis king, where irony and wry detachment is expected from performers, the Tony-winning actor-singer is unapologetically extravagant. Among other pop singers around these days, perhaps only U2’s Bono could match Patinkin’s willingness to so fervently wear his emotions on his sleeve.
Some might cringe when, following a teary, bluesy intro, he launches into “A Tisket a Tasket”– yes, really — and perhaps roll their eyes when he transforms it into a mini-drama involving a cop taking a robbery report from a young child who has lost the “green and yellow basket.”
Part of the fascination with his performance is watching as he skates right up to the line of being ridiculous. He is so emotional, you half expect him to spin out of control, to turn into Jerry Lewis during the closing moments of his Labor Day telethon. Instead, this consummate showman remains a riveting performer and a passionate storyteller.
Patinkin is an especially scholarly artist. His current tour is to promote his Nonesuch release, “Oscar and Steve,” featuring songs of Hammerstein II and Sondheim, respectively, in often intriguing combinations.
So he links the wistful sweetness of Hammerstein’s “When I Grow Too Old to Dream” from the 1935 film “The Night Is Young,” with Sondheim’s slyly salacious “Remember” (ironically, he had to perform the medley twice after he forgot the words to “Remember”). And he finds the connection between the unbridled emotion of “Loving You” from Sondheim’s “Passion” and the similar, though statelier, feeling of “Carousel’s””If I Loved You.”
In all, his repertoire Tuesday (he varies the selections night to night) ranged from Irving Berlin’s 1918 novelty song “Cohen Owes Me $ 97” to pop/rock offerings such as Harry Chapin’s “Taxi” and Randy Newman’s lovely “Marie,” to a powerful interpretation of “Oh What a Circus” from his career-making role as Che Guevara in “Evita.”
It resulted in a crowd-pleasing performance, one that elicited numerous lengthy ovations, swoons and sighs of recognition along with plenty of laughs. He puts his own stamp on the show-stopping “Trouble” from “The Music Man,” suggesting he would be ideal for the planned TV revival.
In short, this evening is more than just a concert, bigger than cabaret, not quite theater, but rather a combination of all these forms. He brings credibility to scenery chewing, which is all the harder in this show because there is no scenery. It takes a rare talent to pull this off, and Patinkin does, spectacularly.