With a performance style that morphs Al Jolson with Judy Garland, Broadway singer/Hollywood actor Mandy Patinkin stakes a singular claim on a patch of showbiz territory that makes him seem at once anachronistic and entirely novel. His voice dropping to a low baritone or swooping to high tenor, Patinkin delivers his mix of Tin Pan Alley, Sondheim and Harry Chapin with an emotionalism that has won him a devoted following. Newcomers to the Patinkin style might well find it off-putting initially, but as his Broadway benefit stand makes clear, the singer can certainly win over a crowd.
An offbeat song selection that further serves the singer’s sentimental leanings (he pairs “School Days” — as in “dear old golden-rule days” — with Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle”) combines with an easygoing but comically bristly rapport with his audience to make a Patinkin performance seem just shy of eccentric. If he occasionally crosses the coy line (singing “A-Tisket A-Tasket” as a little girl) or goes on a bit too long with audience-participation shtick, he delivers when it counts: Sondheim’s “Not a Day Goes By” and the Hammerstein-Rodgers “If I Loved You” from “Carousel.”
At times, a Patinkin concert can seem like a musicology lesson, albeit an amusing one, as the singer, dressed in casual black and sporting running shoes, delves into the history of popular song, from Yiddish Theater trinkets (“Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long”) through Tin Pan Alley chestnuts (“The Band Played On”), recent Broadway (a number from “Evita”) and the odd Top 40 hit (Chapin’s “Taxi”). Backed only by the piano accompaniment of Paul Ford, he wraps all the songs in an emotionally charged melodrama that works because of his undeniable vocal talent and an unspoken link to a showbiz tradition that is all but absent from today’s stage (Liza Minnelli might be his female equivalent, though of more limited vocal ability).
Patinkin certainly can be self-indulgent, both in his performing and his sometimes long-winded chats with the audience. (He complained of vocal stress at the reviewed performance, which might have prompted more rest-giving between-song patter than usual.) Still, his barbed wit — he stopped a song to say “gesundheit” after a very loud sneeze from the audience — is a nice balance to the more emotional extremes of his performing style.
What’s most surprising, though, is how effective his emotionalism can be. Few performers could get away with the pathos that Patinkin wrings from these songs, but, virtually daring his audience not to be moved, get away with it he does.
For the record, all profits from this 14-performance Broadway engagement will be donated by Patinkin and producer Dodger Endemol Theatricals to five charities: the Assn. to Benefit Children, the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, the National Dance Institute, Peace Now and Physicians for Human Rights.