Neither a reinvention nor a reinterpretation of a songbook, Barry Manilow’s sit-down show in Las Vegas is a shortened version of the greatest-hits revue he shuttered last year with a “final performance” at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim. A few production numbers, a couple of film clips and a tune saluting Vegas have been added to the routine, but it remains a celebration of all things Barry, including a big blush over the Hilton’s copious promotions. Yet as greatest hits revues go, Manilow is among the best in the business, and “Music and Passion” retains the qualities that made him an amphitheater perennial.
Manilow maximizes his charisma and mellifluous high tenor — only minimally changed in the 30 years since “Mandy’s” debut — in “Music and Passion,” which showcases the singer’s love of swing, crooners and Broadway on a level equal to the blockbusters. There is no lavish theatricality or presentations to make listeners rethink a song, which makes it less ambitious than the shows of Celine Dion and Elton John down the block.
He does have a few surprises, including “Luck Be a Lady” (the Sinatra hit from “Guys and Dolls”) as an opener, and before night’s end, he pays tribute to Count Basie, funk, lounge acts and Motown. Using old-school thinking that a performer should have a wide appeal, what could be more Vegas-y than that?
Opening night’s 18-song set — which is expected to change almost nightly — included eight Manilow classics from his 1974-78 heyday, when his bombastic balladry stood out from the Adult Contemporary wallpaper music of the era. Even now (pun intended), the show-stopping nature of his hits is played to the hilt; “Weekend in New England,” with a scrim covered in gray raindrops separating Manilow and his piano from the band, gets a colossal swell from the band as well as Manilow’s voice, which is pushed through some sort of electronic enhancer that produces the sound of an octet of Barrys singing. For “Daybreak,” he precisely dueted with a live version filmed in 1975; on “Can’t Smile Without You,” as he has for years, he brought up an audience member to sing along with him. (Fortunately, the victim — a nurse from Long Island — had a pleasant voice.)
A high-spirited block in the middle of the set brought together “New York City Rhythm,” Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” the 1975 hit “Bandstand Boogie” and “Dancin’ Fool,” which appeared in the musical “Copacabana” he wrote with Bruce Sussman and Jack Feldman. Segment, which included the four keyboardists playing musical chairs at their instruments, was a neatly parlayed history of American dance music, non-sequential, mind you.
Later, he segued from a throbbing “Copacabana” into Prince’s “Sexy M.F.” as he sang with his backup dancers on a secondary stage suspended over the sixth row. It made for a splashy, if not meaningful, moment, as did their group rendition of Martha and the Vandellas’ hit “Dancin’ in the Street,” which Manilow sang as if he wanted to take it in a direction different than where the band was headed.
But both banks of songs reinforced Manilow’s motivation in doing the show. “When I was in the middle of my farewell tour — and unlike Cher I meant it — I looked around at the state of the world and said the world still needs uplifting music,” he said before launching into “Daybreak.” So regardless of how much he changes the act, the key will be to uplift — which he does considerably well.
Never mind arguing whether Manilow deserves all this fuss: The statue of limitations has run out on the debate of Manilow’s musical merits. Truth is, he created an identifiable hit parade, which these days works better live than on record and is even better when done in this 85-minute setting rather than the 25-plus song marathons he was known for. His band features two of his longtime associates — keyboardist Ron Pedley and guitarist Michael Lent — and it is a tight unit, particularly the three-piece horn section.
Manilow is booked to perform 120 shows at the Las Vegas Hilton and he’s doing them five times per week for 20 weeks to start. Top ticket is for 28 seats located on the wings of the stage; orchestra is priced at $165.50.