Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 30, 2013
Theatre: St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
It was obvious to both the eye and the ear that Manilow was still struggling to maintain control over his voice. He had to regularly swig from a strategically placed water bottle; throat clears and coughs were too significant to hide; a box of tissues was conspicuous on the downstage keyboard he sometimes played; and during some of the more tender moments later on, particularly during "When October Goes" (a Johnny Mercer lyric Manilow set himself), Manilow's eternally secure high notes were neither crack- nor effort-free.
But it's to Manilow's credit that he wouldn't let even these understandable setbacks stall him. Owning his lingering malady with a few well-placed barbs ("I've hocked up enough phlegm to float Fire Island," he quipped early on), he convinced time and again that his goal wasn't to merely "get through" the night. No, he wanted to deliver the all-out barn-burner of an event the house full of demonstrably delirious fans, armed with glow sticks and a willingness to sing along with their idol at every opportunity, had come expecting. And at that he succeeded.
"All I got is a bunch of hit songs, and I plan on doing them all," he announced early on, and with that as his theme statement, disappointment was essentially out of the question. One suspects that, once he's returned to full strength, Manilow will not vary the formula much. And that's okay: The one he's unleashing here, sick or not, is really all he needs.
The stream-of-consciousness chronicle vaguely charts Manilow's rise from a Brooklyn teenager inspired by his high-school orchestra class to the best-selling international superstar he is today, by focusing on all the melodies that made the journey possible every step of the way. His earliest and most obscure sample is a childhood vignette, in which he's heard arguing with his insistent grandfather about singing for a record-your-own-voice microphone. Everything other song, with the likely exception of "Every Single Day" from Manilow's never-made-it-to-Broadway musical Harmony (about the Comedian Harmonists), is considerably better known.
The likes of "Somewhere in the Night," "Looks Like We Made It," and "Can't Smile Without You" don't provide any reason to believe that Manilow, now 69, is in any way lacking for the vigor or enthusiasm that have always characterized his performing. Quieter numbers, such as "Even Now," "I Am Your Child," and "This One's For You," burst with a pointed sensitivity that is, if anything, even more intensely felt, and suggest the life-changing lessons Manilow has learned during his four decades in show business.
As if to underscore how far he's come, Manilow even kicks off his biggest-of-the-biggest-hits section by dueting with himself, courtesy of a 1975 television appearance, on "Mandy." Even coping with and illness-ragged voice, Manilow exudes a darkly earnest, yet magnetic, quality today that isn't especially different from what he built his career on. The optimism is real but deceptive, always cloaked with a little pain that the singer masks with a bright tone that hints he's never telling you the full story.
That's irresistible in general, not least because now the notes and the passion behind them are smokier, wiser, and richer. Perhaps some — but only some — of Manilow's youthful energy has departed, but he's held on to a shocking amount of it, and knows how and when to let it out so that every song has just as much as it requires. So well judged is the modern Manilow's "Mandy," in fact, that it challenges the earlier one. That's no small feat.
By closing mere minutes afterward with "Copacabana" (which, at least at opening night, inspired the most unbridled audience sing-along) and "I Write the Songs," Manilow leaves the assembled throngs with exactly irresistible and unforgettable tunes they crave, wrapped up in a package that's as timely and timeless as the artist himself. Even if you're not Manilow's biggest fan — as, admittedly, I am not — you'll be hard pressed to walk away from Manilow on Broadway disagreeing with the star's contention that he "was the Justin Bieber of the '70s." You'll have an even harder time convincing yourself that Manilow hasn't earned, and deserved, everything he's achieved — except the bronchitis that, for the moment anyway, is keeping Manilow operating at a level just below his very best.