I finally went to see Barry Manilow last Saturday night. I’d been wanting to for years, but that insidious “I can do it anytime” attitude had kept me away. The truth is, we locals can’t do it anytime. If we could, I’d be putting off seeing the Rat Pack this weekend, or finding a reason to delay buying a ticket to hear Elvis. It’s that kind of thinking that means I’ll never see Siegfried & Roy or Celine Dion’s show at Caesars. I’m very glad I don’t have to add Danny Gans to that list, or “Spamalot,” or the “Folies Bergere,” which I managed to catch before they went dark forever. I still procrastinate far too much, but I’m extremely glad my “postponititis” didn’t keep me from seeing Barry Manilow.
“Ultimate Manilow: The Hits,” which is the official title of Manilow’s show at the Las Vegas Hilton, is the sort of experience you want to be rewarded with every time you buy a ticket in Vegas. Not only does it delight and surprise its audience with ingenious stage décor, lights, smoke, confetti and streamers, it has a headliner that outdazzles them all. It’s for people like Manilow that the term “superstar” had to be invented. The man is tiny, but he fills up that huge theater for a solid 90 minutes and somehow even goes with you when you leave.
Well okay, he’s not on stage the whole 90 minutes, but he’s there for a good 85. Of that 85, he spends at least 80 singing, and much of the time, he’s also playing the piano. You paid for Manilow, and Manilow is what you get, in addition to over a dozen of the best musicians and backup singers you’ll hear anywhere.
Perhaps I should mention here that I come from a generation that tried hard to despise Barry Manilow. We failed, of course, because who can’t stop humming “Mandy” once they’ve heard it? I think the custom of never admitting you like Manilow is part of the Woodstock effect. Barry Manilow was off working for the man when Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were singing in the rain. If you bought into the anti-establishment mood of the time, that pretty much meant you had to keep any admiration you might feel for someone who wrote jingles for corporations under your
Quite a while ago, I wearied of pretending I didn’t like certain singers or songs because they weren’t hip or might give the signal that I was a Republican. Call me a dork, but I like the theme from “Cheers” and that Coke song about teaching the world to sing. I like Wayne Newton’s version of “Red Roses for a Blue Lady,” and Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” I also like Gregorian chants, Indian drumming, all the songs from “My Fair Lady,” and Bobby Darin’s version of “Mack the Knife.” That Celene Dion song from the Titanic movie is pretty unforgettable, and all those scores by John Williams… I could go on and on, because the moment I decided my tastes in music didn’t have to match my taste in clothes or presidential candidates, my playlist exploded to infinity. But I digress.
What makes “Ultimate Manilow: The Hits” truly outstanding is that the show lives up to its name and even delivers extra. As I mentioned, Manilow is on stage for all but the few moments it takes to change jackets. Except for the minute or two he’s delivering entertaining patter, he’s singing and playing—just as advertised—the hits. In other shows, performers often sing just a few lines of their reputation-making numbers. Donny Osmond, for example, sings only a few phrases of “Puppy Love” in his show. Not Manilow. He sings his songs from beginning to end. I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like for him to belt out “Mandy” for the 1,785,932nd time, but he does it. “Mandy” is, in fact, the climax of the show, and he performs it as a duet with a video version of himself singing it decades ago on television. Quite amazing.
“Mandy” may be the Everest of the evening, but the rest of the show is a series of equally impressive peaks. As I think back, I also remember “Somewhere Down the Road,” “Brooklyn Blues,” a jazzy version of “Jingle Bells,” and “I Write the Songs.” For “I Can’t Smile Without You,” Manilow invited the audience to join in and shared the mic with a couple of crooning—while swooning—fans. “Copacabana,” the grand finale, featured a “stairway to heaven” contraption that dropped down from the ceiling. Borne aloft, Manilow greeted his adoring fans in the balcony.
Which brings me to another fine feature of Manilow’s performance. Not only does he reward his audience with complete renditions of his classic hits, he lets his fans take pictures during his show. There were times that the flashes from cameras looked like a light show as they reflected on his piano or one of his glittery jackets. Perhaps other performers of his stature allow his sort of thing, but at most shows I’ve attended, efforts to prevent photography are stern and uncompromising. At this show, the only stern and uncompromising features were two big bouncers stationed in front of the footlights. I can understand the need to keep overeager fans from storming the stage. But banning fuzzy photos on cell phones? I think Manilow has the right perspective on this. It had the effect of making the audience feel appreciated and respected. Well, okay, maybe I speak only for myself, but I’m pretty sure the tall guy who stood up and salaamed Manilow at the end of the show felt the same way. And all the swooning ladies. And all the other hundreds of people who jumped up whenever they couldn’t fight off the urge to give a standing ovation.
Like the glow stick handed to me by an usher when I arrived at the theater, I’m still glowing a bit from Manilow’s concert even now, two days later. It inspired me to read about him online, marvel at his multiple talents, and even chastise myself for pretending to hold his work in disdain back when I had my tastes in music and my identity sadly confused. The man is a consummate artist and a brilliant performer. His show is wonderful, and if you don’t catch it while you can, it is most definitely your loss.
Manilow opened and closed his show with “It’s a Miracle,” directing the line “the miracle is you” straight to the audience. It was a lovely, fan-respecting thing to do, but as I look back on my evening at the Hilton, I’m forced to disagree. Thanks, Mr. Manilow, but the only miraculous thing I saw that night was you.