Demonstrating that showmanship can elevate a limited musical spectrum and make familiar tunes work on levels beyond nostalgia, Barry Manilow delivered a crisp and humorous evening in which he sincerely broke down the wall between performer and audience -- a rarity in staged pop entertainment.
Demonstrating that showmanship can elevate a limited musical spectrum and make familiar tunes work on levels beyond nostalgia, Barry Manilow delivered a crisp and humorous evening in which he sincerely broke down the wall between performer and audience — a rarity in staged pop entertainment. Still suffering from the bronchitis that caused the postponement of three shows from last weekend, Manilow hit the vast majority of his notes and even playfully winced when he knew he wasn’t up to snuff. He gets bonus points for being such a trouper.Manilow neatly divides his show into two hourlong sets, the first dedicated to hits and two numbers from his upcoming Broadway tuner “Harmony,” the second featuring numbers from his concept disc “Here at the Mayflower,” his first for Concord Jazz after making 28 albums for Arista and two for Bell. First seg magnified the Manilow-isms — the raised octave for dramatic effect in the final third of a song, the somber intros, the reflection on relationships gone awry and the desire to restore love — and his polished perf brightened each number even within arrangements that hewed exactly to the recordings. Significantly, he brings the audience into his world by having an audience member join him for a duet on “I Write the Songs” and having another patron choose a ballad for him to sing — on this night, the repertoire decider insisted on “Weekend in New England” even though it wasn’t one of the 12 choices. It ended up as one of the best perfs of the night. The touch he brings to the performance is subtle: “Daybreak,” performed early on within a three-song medley, teeters between Frank Sinatra-worthy and Partridge Family outtake; Manilow, sharply attired in several suits, renders it wholly his in a manner that few other performers could. That’s what attracted Clive Davis to Manilow — revisionists like to forget he was Arista’s first hitmaker — and when Manilow is busy re-creating 1970s radio, rather than positing himself as pre-rock ‘n’ roll crooner or big band singer, he makes his hits ring with more integrity that others in his class, such Neil Diamond or Billy Joel. Manilow says “Harmony,” his musical about the Comedian Harmonists singing group of 1930s Germany, has its budget nearly secured and he expects a January 2003 Broadway opening. It’s interesting to hear those numbers against the songs from “Here at the Mayflower,” which are conceived as vignettes about the residents of a New York apartment house. In both cases Manilow expands his musical vocabulary — only “Mayflower’s” “Apartment 2H: Turn the Radio Up” truly sounds Manilow-esque — and within the individual songs, there are strengths and weakness. All have powerful endings; they often sag after the intro while the song is attempting to determine its direction. Broadway, though, is a good venue for Manilow to move into — he has always had strong story-telling instincts and partnered with lyricists who share that ambition. “Copacabana (At the Copa),” a cheesy disco tune in its day that closed the show, is now a breezy reminder of a simpler time and held up against the bestsellers of 1978; it’s a forebear of the lively contemporary Broadway show closer. Manilow spoke of his love for the Broadway stage, as well as the fortitude of New Yorkers and his health, and even managed to poke fun at himself when thanking the crowd. “I know it’s not easy being a Barry Manilow fan,” he said, his honesty making everyone who was dragged to the show see him in a new light. He’s only the third musical performer to hit the Kodak Theater stage. Manilow’s voice was amplified with remarkable clarity, as was his piano and the keyboards of musical director Steve Welch, who has this band playing at peak level. Acoustically, the P.A. struggled with the nine piece horn section, producing a low-register brassy fog in which no instruments could be distinguished. Only in “Copacabana” could the brightness of the saxophones be differentiated from the blare of the French horn. Kodak run was the start of a 30-city, 60-concert U.S. tour that includes five shows, Feb. 5-9, at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.