(Photo: Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images)
NEW YORK - It has never been hard to make fun of Barry Manilow. Certainly, it wasn't last week, when the veteran singer/songwriter issued a miniseries of cheeky but vaguely whiny press releases canceling two previews and then postponing the opening of his new concert event, Manilow on Broadway, citing doctor's orders. One had the Brooklyn native perched on the bridge connecting that bureau to Manhattan, "getting ready to jump," while another declared, "It turns out the only thing worse than hell or high water is bronchitis."
Manilow actually blamed the flu when he finally made it to the stage of the St. James Theatre on Tuesday night. It hadn't been easy, he assured the crowd: "I've hacked up enough phlegm to float Long Island." Ba-dum-bump.
His 69-year-old voice was clearly still recovering; hoarse even in speech, it seemed at times to float in back of the mix, then to rush forward on a wave of reverb. But vocal prowess was never Manilow's selling point anyway. His chief asset as a performer has always been a certain endearing neediness - not the smarmy solicitation of a lounge lizard, but a sense that he genuinely feeds off his fans' affection and feels compelled to return it.
"We've been friends for a long time, haven't we?" he rhetorically asked Tuesday's crowd, whom ushers had supplied with green glow sticks to shake like maracas during the upbeat numbers and wave theatrically through the ballads. He promised to play all the hits, noting, "I'll bet you're going to know every song," and asking - with more wonder than arrogance - how many other artists could make such a claim.
Indeed, Manilow's string of smash singles from the '70s were as seared into our collective consciousness as the jingles he penned or sang earlier, for brands from Band-Aid to McDonald's. At their best - the plaintive Weekend in New England, the pining Could It Be Magic - his tunes relay an almost childlike wonder and longing that mitigate their sentimentality.
The high points of Manilow on Broadway generally found him seated at the piano or a smaller keyboard across the stage. I Made It Through the Rain was dedicated to survivors of Hurricane Sandy, building from an a cappella intro to a sweeping finish that brought audience members to their feet - though some, particularly in the front, stood through much of the evening, cheering and holding up smartphones that weren't confiscated.
If other attendees were more interested in the kitsch value of the proceedings, their host surely didn't mind. While irony is one of the last qualities you'd associate with Manilow, he's clearly more comfortable with self-deprecating humor than many more venerated troubadours. His stiff dance moves - imagine your klutzy uncle, not after a few drinks but before he'd had enough to loosen up - were tossed off with the same good-natured enthusiasm as his jokes, which ranged from Borscht Belt-zippy to just silly, as when he called himself the Justin Bieber of the '70s.
It's tough to envision a horde of Bieber's fans brandishing glow sticks and singing along with him, word for word, 40 years from now - something to bear in mind before you have a chuckle at Manilow's expense.
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)