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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