Manilow on Broadway: Theater Review
St. James Theatre, New York City
(runs through March 2)
The veteran pop star and "Justin Bieber of the '70s" returns to Broadway in a hits-laden show.
There was plenty of drama onstage at the St. James Theatre during the opening night of Manilow on Broadway, but it didn’t emanate from such songs as “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again” or “This One’s for You.” Rather, it was from watching the 69-year-old singer struggle valiantly to get through the show, despite still obviously battling the bronchitis that caused him to cancel several previews. It was a lesson in showbiz grit and dedication that younger performers would do well to emulate.
It also was a good example of why Barry Manilow still enjoys a dedicated following, especially among women of a certain age, in a recording career spanning four decades. The numbers speak for themselves: 25 Top 40 hits between 1975 and 1983 alone and sales of more than 80 million records worldwide. This limited Broadway run marks his first appearance on the Great White Way in nearly a quarter-century.
With the stage dotted with boxes of tissues in a comic nod to his recent health travails, Manilow clearly was jazzed to finally be onstage again.
“Well, looks like we made it,” he said, referencing one of his best-known songs. “What a week! I have hacked enough phlegm to float Fire Island!”
Judging by his sometimes ragged vocals, he hasn’t hacked all of it yet. The singer clearly was having difficulties, sometimes surprising himself when he managed to hit a soaring note. But his visible efforts also gave the evening a moving, spontaneous quality that might otherwise have been lacking.
“I don’t know what’s going to come out of my mouth, but so far, so good,” he said after one number.
Manilow is savvy enough to know what his audience wants to hear, and he gave it to them. His 100-minute set featured a multitude of hits, inspiring sing-alongs by an audience clearly familiar with every word. Such songs as “It’s a Miracle,” “Somewhere in the Night,” "Can’t Smile Without You,” “Even Now,” “I Made It Through the Rain,” “When Will I Hold You Again?” and many others provided ample evidence of his amazing success on the pop charts.
Occasionally, he ventured into more diverse territory. He dutifully sang “Give My Regards to Broadway” in acknowledgment of the venue, a theater that has housed such hits as The King and I, Oklahoma! and The Producers. The jazzy “Brooklyn Blues” paid tribute to his roots in the borough, while “When October Goes” represented one of his posthumous collaborations with lyricist Johnny Mercer. And he proudly sang “Every Single Day,” a song from his long-gestating musical Harmony that has yet to make it to Broadway.
One of the show’s most touching segments came with his rendition of “This One’s for You,” which was dedicated to his grandfather. The number was amusingly prefaced by a vintage recording of Manilow as a tyke, being coaxed to sing “Happy Birthday.”
The show, in which Manilow was accompanied by a seven-piece band and two backup singers, was a largely no-frills affair, with the only theatrical touches being projected videos and a wan burst of confetti at the end. But the audience made their own fun, happily waving the glow sticks that had been provided by the ushers and frequently leaping to their feet for standing ovations.
It’s impossible to ignore the singer’s efforts to retain his youthful looks. His appearance is jarringly artificial, especially when contrasted with the video close-ups of his puppyish face from his heyday. But his endearing personality and amusingly self-deprecating banter (“I was the Justin Bieber of the ‘70s!”) provided a much-needed human element.
Like every great showman, he saved his biggest crowd pleasers for the end of the evening, including “Mandy,” the rousing “Copacabana,” “I Write the Songs” (written, ironically, by The Beach Boys' Bruce Johnston) and “It’s a Miracle.” They sent the audience out on a high, hoping it won’t take a miracle for Manilow to return to classic form.
Executive producers: Red Awning, Garry C. Kief
Production designer: Seth Jackson
Sound designer: Ken Newman
Presented by Jujamcyn Theaters, Stiletto Entertainment
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