‘Manilow Songbook’ hits the stage

Bows at Mercury on June 19

CHICAGO — Betting that “Mandy” and “Even Now” can pack the same kind of B.O. punch as anything by Leiber and Stoller, Barry Manilow and his business and creative team are planning a new theatrical revue based around 29 of the songs first recorded by the long-lasting MOR icon.

With Manilow sitting in the audience, “Could It Be Magic? The Barry Manilow Songbook” will bow on June 19 at the 330-seat Mercury Theater on Chicago’s North Side. If all goes well in Manilow-loving Chi-town, expect to see other sit-down companies show up on both sides of the Atlantic. There are also rumblings that the show will quickly find a home in the West End.

“We’re getting a lot of interest from other cities,” said Gary Kief, who is producing the show along with his brother, Rob (there are other investors coming into the project, but Gary Kief declined to name them).

Through his L.A.-based company Stiletto Entertainment, Gary Kief is Paula Abdul’s former manager. He also once served as co-manager of Fleetwood Mac, and he has taken care of Manilow’s business since the early 1980s.

Stiletto Entertainment works primarily in music management and is relatively new to the legit world. But a unit of Stiletto already develops legit shows for the Holland America cruise line.

The prototype, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” (which also bowed in Chicago), has played Broadway and large road venues. But the show’s backers believe the Manilow project will do better in 300-500 seat houses. There are also logistical advantages — the small scale allows Stiletto to go it alone without having to partner with SFX or other road giants. With Manilow’s book musical “Harmony” still looking for a Broadway theater, the strategy allows this smaller project to get up and rolling.

Getting intimate

“The availability of large theaters is very difficult,” Kief said. “And we like the idea of doing this show in intimate spaces. I’d prefer to have several sit-down companies than one big tour.”

The project flows from an idea dreamed up by Ken and Mitzi Welch, both longtime Manilow collaborators who have arranged music and come up with concert narratives during the singer’s two decades of live touring. Manilow himself is both sharing a book credit with the Welches and keeping an eye on things.

“When they first came to me with the idea of doing a revue of my material, I was uncomfortable,” Manilow said last week in his first interview about the show. “I’m not dead yet.”

But Manilow was eventually convinced that the songs he has made famous deserved continued exposure. And this was about the only likely way that was going to happen.

“I have worked with some of the great lyricists of pop music,” Manilow said, “but if I don’t do ‘Weekend in New England,’ then nobody does it.”

So Manilow says he thinks of the show as “a tribute to the songwriters whose work I have had the honor of introducing.”

“Could It Be Magic?” marks the third show relying in part on Manilow’s name. “Copa-cabana” rarely attracts strong reviews, but it remains a solid B.O. performer on the road. Manilow has been known to show up to take part in the closing disco mix of the title song.

“Harmony,” inspired by the true story of the Comedian Harmonists, has been eyeing Broadway since its premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1997. Things have yet to come together. “We’re still talking,” Manilow says.

The five-person cast of “Could It Be Magic?” includes two longtime Manilow collaborators — Kye Brackett and Debra Byrd –and three Chicago-based performers, E. Faye Butler, Dominique Fortuna and Keeley Vasques.

Manilow says that the overall feel of the show will have an R&B flavor and features a multiethnic cast. There will no be formal book and certainly no biographical theme.

The aim, Manilow says, is to be “about as far away from me as you can get.”

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