10:49 AM EDT, July 13, 2012
Remember the '70s?
They're back, at least fleetingly, with one of the reigning hit-makers of the era revisiting past triumphs – and offering some newer fare, as well – at the Chicago Theatre.
At 69, Barry Manilow still draws squeals of delight from fans and disdain from those allergic to high-fructose music-making. But the man puts on a gleaming stage show, even if the passage of time has taken some toll.
For starters, Manilow's three-night run at the Chicago Theatre was to have occurred last February, but it was postponed as he recovered from hip surgery. Today, he prowls the stage more gingerly than before, but he perseveres.
"I found a power greater than myself," Manilow told a large and enthusiastic audience on Thursday evening. "I found something I can take with me (to) the end of my life: Vicodin."
Vocally, too, Manilow shows some wear. He commands less voice than before, his thinner, rougher tone prompting him to rely on a great deal of amplification and, for the most part, a deluge of sound from his band. Only traces of the honeyed sound that enticed listeners a couple generations ago endure, yet you could catch snatches of it in his hyper-romantic ballads of the '70s and thereafter.
Manilow has shaped this show as informal autobiography, the singer retracing the oft-told story of the kid from Brooklyn who hit it bigger than he ever could have anticipated. A snapshot of the young boy with his grandfather, TV clips from his first blush of superstardom and other scenes of Manilow's past – and ours – unfurl on a glittering backdrop, while streams of colored light recall a sunnier, more optimistic, rather gaudier era in American pop music.
At his core, of course, Manilow always was – and remains – a kind of latter-day Tin Pan Alley tunesmith, crafting his carefully structured charts to reach their climaxes inexorably, changing keys for quick musical gratification, pushing relentlessly from one soaring, long-held note to the next and the next. He always delivered these tunes with the showmanship of Al Jolson, albeit garbed in disco-era fashion, and his commitment to selling this material remains as fervent as ever (even if the wardrobe has been toned down from the polyester days).
What Manilow has lost in vocal prowess and ease of movement, however, he shrewdly has tried to repay with the high stagecraft of this show. He travels constantly from electronic keyboard to piano to stage center, from ensemble pieces with back-up vocalists to solo moments at the ebony grand in an elegantly choreographed, ingeniously paced, intermissionless show. The high-gloss production values – including streams of confetti that pour down on unsuspecting listeners – remind audiences that until Manilow recently began touring busily again, he was in residence in Las Vegas for years.
Ultimately, though, his fans come for the hits, and he delivered them generously. After a vocal-instrumental overture, Manilow settled into the evening's narrative, weaving original songs and covers into the story of his life, told in about 95 minutes. Perhaps even a Manilow skeptic would have been moved by the tale of a high-school outcast who found refuge in the orchestra room en route to global fame. In this setting, "I Am Your Child" became a reflection on the start of his journey; "This One's for You" unfolded as a tribute to his grandfather, who presciently encouraged him to sing; and a TV clip of himself singing "Mandy" led to a duet with his video image, the past-present juxtaposition underscoring how much time has passed since those early, heady successes.
Manilow showed particular bravery singing a cappella for the opening of "I Made It Through the Rain," his weathered voice plain for all to hear. Yet by linking the tune to the story of his recent surgical travails, he gave it added meaning and purpose. Like his longtime fans, Manilow has been through a lot, he seemed to be saying, and everyone of his vintage can relate.
Remarkably, a single evening isn't quite enough to contain all of Manilow's hits, but he touched on many of them, offering a heartfelt account of "Weekend in New England," a sing-along version of "Can't Smile Without You," a dramatic rendering of "Even Now," excerpts from Manilow's newest album "15 Minutes" and, of course, "I Write the Songs." That one inevitably became another sing-along, while listeners waved the glow-sticks they'd been handed before the show.
Who says the '70s are over?
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Saturday sold out)
Where: Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St.
Tickets: $24.99 to $224.99; ticketmaster.com
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