Bronchial but unbowed, Barry Manilow emerged a hazy blur from shafts of blinding backlighting Jan. 29, marched manfully to the center of the stage at the St. James and received, unconditionally and adoringly, a theatre-full of mass love for what ails him.
Manilow On Broadway began not with a bang but with a cough, which developed into bronchitis and then into That Flu that has been going around, forcing the entertainer off the stage after two previews. If it was the walking wounded that returned to that stage ten days later, his showmanship pretty much patched that up.
Of course, it helped he was playing to an audience of easy graders who greeted just about every song with thunderous applause, wildly waving their green glow-sticks that had been provided with Playbills at the door. Literally and lyrically, his fans made it through the rain, filing into the St. James a bit drenched, spirits undamped.
"This flu thing really was a bear," he told the crowd at his hit-parade's first break. "But for me it wasn't just the flu part, it was the Jewish guilt part that got me." A Brooklyn boy, he was pretty impressed with where he had landed on Broadway: "This theatre has just got such history to it. Great musicals opened here on this very stage — Hello, Dolly!, The King and I, Oklahoma!, The Producers — really, it's got such history. It is such an honor to be here, working on this stage. We haven't got a show like that. We don't have any phantoms, we don't have any lions, we don't have any spider-men. All I got is a whole bunch of hit songs." This was, to understate, enough.
He promised, a la Garland, he'd sing them all and we'd stay all night, and — on opening night, his first night back in harness — he mustered 85 minutes.
With two backup singers and a big-blasting band of nine, Manilow charged lickety-split down his lane of gold records: "Could It Be Magic" (a particularly fitting opener), "It's a Miracle," "Even Now," "This One's for You," "Weekend in New England," et al.
The direction of the show — you'd hardly call it "a book" — was that of a hometown boy looking back over his 69 years, pausing for a nod to his grandfather who was the first to spot his musical talent and record it in a Times Square recording booth or revisiting his old apartment ("It's still a mess, but they're charging $3,500 a month for it now") or setting to music some lyrics that Johnny Mercer left behind.
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Accompanying all of the above were some dazzling visuals — from paisley swirls to waves dashing against rocks in slo-mo. At one point, Manilow does a duet of "Mandy" with his younger self via a clip from "The Midnight Special." Record mogul Clive Davis, who introduced him in that taped segment, was an opening-night guest. Manilow is of the old "Sing Out, Louise" school of crooning — arguably, not the best way to go for anyone recovering from the flu. If he was in a diminished state, his fans must have figured a little touch of Barry in the night was better than no Barry at all.
He played the audience like a harp and reaped so many standing ovations that some fans just decided to stand and dance in place. There was, in particular, a whole lot of side-swaying and head-bopping going on with "Can't Smile Without You."
The New York Post's Elisabeth Vincentelli, ordinarily the model of unreadable restraint at shows, exploded in her aisle seat like a fireworks display over "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You." It's the most fun I've ever seen a critic have in the theatre.
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The debut of a possible new club act — Carson and the Countess — debuted in the aisles during one lusty number — Carson Kressley of "Queer Eye" and Countess LuAnn de Lesseps of "The Real Housewives of New York City," inspiring other couples to take to the dance-aisle. Fox 5 News' Rosanna Scotto, there with "Good Day New York" cohorts Dave Price and Greg Kelly, got a conga line going for "Copacabana," clogging the aisle for fotogs trying to shoot the curtain call. Manilow signed off with "I Write the Songs," which he didn't write but which he did make supremely famous. It still seemed apt in light of the golden-oldies he did write.
The show's after-party was held — where else? — at Copacabana three blocks away, only not in those second- and third-floor rooms so often favored by the non-profit theatre groups. This was Barry Manilow, and only the Rooftop was good enough.
The bad news was that the elevator wasn't working until Manilow had come and gone, necessitating an enormous amount of staircase-climbing for one and all.
When he did arrive, Manilow was conspicuously more subdued and just as quickly mobbed by friends as he had been by fans. He was genial and gracious to all who crossed his path, but his eyes were constantly darting about, saying "Where did I put that exit?" But he took his own sweet time about exercising the exit. And he wasn't a stickler for vocal rest, although my exclusive quote consisted of "Hangin' in there."
Among the Fanilows we spotted: NY1's Patrick Pacheco, Tony-winning lyricist David Zippel and director-choreographer Warren Carlyle. The latter really goes back with Manilow. "We did Copacabana together in the West End in the early 1990s. I was a chorus boy in those days."
"I thought he sounded fantastic," opined Jim Caruso, who hosts Birdland's Cast Party every Monday. "When he sings with the video of himself, he's still singing in the same keys 30 years later! That's rather unusual, I think. He and his songwriters were the Gershwins of their day because these songs are really going to live."
Kirsten Holly Smith (a.k.a. Dusty Springfield in Forever Dusty) and Commissioner Katherine Oliver from the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment were the evening's "star power." The original opening last week had a glittery list of celebs.
Liza Minnelli was one of those who couldn't reschedule. She had an early a.m. call — to do a "Today" show interview with Joel Grey, Michael York and Marisa Berenson on the 40th anniversary of their " Cabaret" flick. All four will be turning out Jan. 31 for its gala "re-opening" at the Ziegfeld arranged by Turner Classic Movies.