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Mann & Penn: A Pleasing Mix of Laughter, Musical Melancholy

Pop Beat * The singing soulmates take their Largo show to a larger venue. The move works.

May 20, 2000|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Aimee Mann and Michael Penn as the new Sonny & Cher?

Well, the musical married couple did start the encore of their show Thursday at the Henry Fonda Theatre by singing one verse and chorus of Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe," with Penn doing Sonny Bono's nasal whine.

And they did load their show, titled for a brief tour "Acoustic Vaudeville," with shtick, both from their "designated patter" guy, comedian Patton Oswalt, and of their own. Mann did an Ethel Merman voice to conclude Penn's 1990 hit "No Myth," Penn spoke in fake Russian with Oswalt providing hilarious "translations," and so on.

If that doesn't sound in keeping with the tone of their music, that's the idea. There's not an "I Got You Babe" type mash-note sentiment in either Mann's or Penn's song catalogs. Rather, each generally writes of wrong choices and the sad, stoic lives that result. The music has an overwhelming melancholy that film director Paul Thomas Anderson drew on in devising the movie "Magnolia" around Mann's songs, with "Save Me" having earned an Oscar nomination.

Both also are accomplished at song craft with roots not just in lush, Beatles-esque styles, but in Brill Building and Tin Pan Alley formulas. There are twisting melodies, major-minor shifts and vivid colorings added here by keyboardist Patrick Warren, guitarist Buddy Judge, drummer John Sands and, on a few songs, violinist Michael Panes.

So the gags Thursday (the first of two nights at the Fonda) were highly incongruous with the songs--just the kind of thing that could undercut the emotional impact.

Somehow, though, it didn't.

The show is an outgrowth of a residency at the small club Largo that Mann and Penn did last year, using comics (including Oswalt) to speak for them between songs. Bits that at the Largo had seemed spontaneous initially seemed forced at the Fonda--a byproduct perhaps of moving from the casual club atmosphere to a more formal theater setting. Mann herself commented onstage that the Fonda was "too nice" for them.

But then Mann flubbed the lyrics to a song and, rather than restarting, decided to go off stage to change out of the frilly shirt that had been catching on her guitar. When she returned, any aura of stiffness was gone and somehow the goofiness now complemented the songs' depth.

By the end, it was anything goes: Judge and Mann chattered into Penn's ears to derail him during a wordy passage of his "Brave New World." In the middle of Mann's old 'Til Tuesday hit "Voices Carry," Penn gave a dramatic interlude acting out a domestic spat, capped by a curtsy to the audience.

At one point, Mann apologized for being "unprofessional" for changing her shirt. If you want professional, go see Cher--how many costume changes does she make each concert?

* Aimee Mann and Michael Penn play Thursday at the Sun Theatre, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, 8:30 p.m. $25. (714) 712-2700.

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