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POP REVIEW : Manilow Earns Some Respect

December 28, 1987|DON HECKMAN

Barry Manilow--call him lovable, adorable, even cute. He's got long legs, apple cheeks, a Barbra Streisand nose, a star on Hollywood Boulevard and his very own autobiography. What more could a performer only two decades removed from the mean streets of Brooklyn desire?

A little respect, perhaps. A little realization that he's more than just another pretty profile. A little awareness that his musical skills reach beyond the production line manufacture of hit songs.

Saturday night at the Pantages Theatre, Manilow diligently set about to prove what a versatile and gifted performer he really is. He made his case with a collection of new jazz and Swing-era material demonstrating that he is an artist of substantial scope.

So why hasn't Manilow's enjoyed much critical respect over the years? Successful as he may have been, his long string of hit songs has generally been disliked by rock-minded pop critics and ignored by the rock and jazz worlds.

While the failure to appeal to those specialized listeners has in no way diminished Manilow's record sales or his overall popularity, it has brought his musical image uncomfortably--if inaccurately--close to the middle of the road occupied by, say, a Neil Diamond, a Tony Orlando or a Streisand.

But Manilow's concert--part of a tour which runs at the Pantages through Jan. 9, except for off-nights today and Friday--underscored the pointlessness of such associations. He may be as striking a stage performer as Streisand, and, like Diamond, have an uncanny ability to write hit songs, but the similarities end there.

The first half of his performance was virtually a mini-Broadway showpiece in which Manilow reminisced musically about his past. In the background, on various parts of the stage, costumed performers dramatized his stories, while the rear scrim was filled with appropriate visual projections.

Manilow's odyssey was musically illustrated with a grooving "Brooklyn Blues," a few smidgens of accordion music (for his grandmother), a convincingly articulate up-tempo romp through the intricate jazz lines of "Cloudburst," a comedic sequence of piano audition music and his first hit song, "Mandy."

The show's second half was titled "Swing Street" and focused on Manilow's current fascination with jazz-based material. "Big Fun," a high-spirited anthem to swing, had all the makings of a new, quite different kind of Manilow hit.

He was equally effective on "Stompin' at the Savoy" and even better on a stunning version of "Summertime," done as a trio performance with singer Deborah Bird and saxophonist Dana Robbins.

By the time Manilow finally got around to the obligatory medley of hits, they seemed almost pale in comparison to the bursting creative energy which had preceded them. Before launching into such memorabilia as "One Voice," "Even Now," "Some Kind of Friend," "Copacabana" and, inevitably, "I Write the Songs," Manilow turned to the audience with a grin and said: "For those of you who were dragged here tonight, this medley is going to be agony."

He may have been right if the medley hadn't been preceded by a performance of such far-ranging effectiveness. Manilow has the skill to take his musical game up a level well beyond Top 40 songwriting. His work in the "Swing Street" show suggests that's exactly what he has in mind.

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