There are performers who are all things to all people, but Neil Diamond is not one of them. As his richly entertaining two-hour concert at Staples Center (the first of four) proves, Diamond has been many things over his 40-year career: Brill Building singer-songwriter on the make, folk-rocker on a quest, Vegas showman and movie shlockmeister. He might be known (half-jokingly) as the “Jewish Elvis,” but the show makes the case that he’s closer to the Semitic Bobby Darin.
There’s a portion of the aud that is up and dancing for early hits such as “Cherry Cherry” and “Kentucky Woman” (performed as part of a midshow acoustic set) but takes a bathroom break when they hear “Jonathan Livingston Seagull Suite” or “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”; another part of the sold-out house would feel cheated if Diamond didn’t perform those songs. Part of the crowd just wants to hear him croon “Forever in Blue Jeans” and “I Am … I Said.”
If Diamond is too much of an entertainer (the fact that he conceived and starred in the 1980 remake of “The Jazz Singer” speaks to his ambition to be the new Al Jolson) to disappoint any of his fans, he’s also too much of a songwriter not to give every number a serious, committed performance. There’s no irony about Neil Diamond — he’s the kind of performer who can honestly humble himself thanking the aud while speaking in the royal “we.”
But the gap between the showman and the songwriter is narrower than one might expect. Except for the opening “Crunchy Granola Suite,” where the 14-piece band rises from beneath the stage, there are no special effects. Even the video screens are placed far above the performers and off to the side. Most of the show is just Diamond, dressed in high-waisted black slacks and a black shirt with a sparkly red yoke (he looks like an aging country-club Lothario or the guy who filled out your father’s golf foursome), stalking the stage, punching the air and waving his arms dramatically (the songs’ slowly building, stop-time codas leave him plenty of room for that).
It’s all to focus attention on Diamond and his songs. Even his 1960s pop hits have dramatic, steadily escalating melodies that are sturdy enough to stand up to the hefty arrangements they’re sometimes given. “Desiree” and “I Am … I Said” now sound wonderfully dramatic, like a more plain-spoken Jimmy Webb or Jacques Brel. And his deep, resonant baritone gives the songs a stentorian heft. Only the gaseous “America” and the aforementioned “Seagull” and “Flowers” retain their cheesiness. But it’s hard to imagine any singer capable of redeeming them; they are probably the reason for Diamond’s unconscionable absence from the Hall of Fame, which puts him in a similar category with another famous Brooklynite, Gil Hodges.