For most of "Mandy Patinkin in Concert: Celebrating Sondheim," the singer stands motionless, hands clasped and eyes shut, lost in a personal reverie. He rarely breaks the pose during the 90-minute concert, which contains no stage patter, no intermission and only a few breaks between songs.
It's an intense performance, but one so introverted that little emotional connection can take place between Patinkin and his listeners.
To be fair, he has set a difficult task for himself. Stephen Sondheim's songs are famously austere, full of intricate melodies and intellectual lyrics. Making them accessible to listeners isn't easy for any performer.
Not easy, but certainly possible. In her "Mostly Sondheim" concerts at Lincoln Center earlier this year, Barbara Cook showed how an intimate, cabaret-style approach to Sondheim's songs could reveal their warmth and vulnerability.
What made Cook's concerts so moving was her ability to communicate directly with the audience. You heard all the lyrics, and you also felt the emotion behind them.
Patinkin, performing most Sundays and Mondays between now and Jan. 8 at the Henry Miller Theatre, could be expected to be nearly as effective. His extensive Sondheim credentials include originating the title role in "Sunday in the Park With George" in 1984 and appearing in the acclaimed 1985 concert version of "Follies."
And by technical standards, his performance doesn't disappoint. He's pitch-perfect whether using a rich baritone or fluttering around in an amazingly stable falsetto. Sometimes, he swoops from one to the other in the same song.
He can belt with the best of them, too. He starts "Broadway Baby." from "Follies," as a plaintive ballad - a treatment that works surprisingly well - but by the last verse, he's worked up to a Mermanesque holler. He uses the same approach on several other numbers, including "Losing My Mind' (also from "Follies') and Sunday" (from "Sunday in the Park With George').
All that bravura technique is impressive but distracting, especially in such an intimate setting. It's difficult to lose yourself in a song when you're bracing for the next high-decibel finale.
Patinkin does best with Sondheim's humorous numbers: "You Could Drive a Person Crazy." for example, tickles in all the right places. And through it all, Paul Ford, who provides piano accompaniment, dazzles with his sensitive arrangements and sterling playing.
Still, you're left with the impression that Patinkin is on an ego trip. In the liner notes for the CD of the concert, he writes that the show is meant to be "a figurative journey of how Sondheim's lyrics and music speak to me."
Unfortunately, he doesn't seem interested in making them speak to the rest of us.
Mandy Patinkin's "Celebrating Sondheim" is just that - 90 minutes of the star of "Sunday in the Park With George" singing the songs of Stephen Sondheim. The one-man show consists of medleys that illuminate Sondheim's work, performed without interruption or commentary. One theme that runs throughout is freedom - from "Free" in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" to "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" from "Sweeney Todd."
Seventeen years separate these two scores, but all you can say is that Sondheim started at an extraordinarily high level and just kept getting more sophisticated. The musical arrangements are by Paul Ford, whose brilliant pianism and perfect understanding of Sondheim's musical idiom give the show a remarkable seamlessness. The show is a kind of endurance feat, whose challenges Patinkin's rich voice meets with aplomb. He sings with great sensitivity and crisp diction. But unfortunately, he performs with a headpiece microphone. The Henry Miller, where the show will run eight more times through Jan. 6, is cozy, and the mike weakens the sense of intimacy.
It also encourages the mannerisms that have marred his work in recent years, though there is, happily, less of the manic Mandy. In addition to his falsetto, which he uses too often, in his low range he sounds like crooner Vaughn Monroe. Both extremes are self-conscious. Still, when Patinkin does a powerful solo version of the title song from "Sunday" and ends by pointing at an upstage piano, indicating the composer, everything is forgiven.
Some say Mandy Patinkin is an acquired taste. If so, I've definitely acquired it. I wonder if it's addictive - or, for that matter, contagious?
Monday night at the Henry Miller Theatre, he kicked off a holiday stand of his latest theater-concert show, "Mandy Patinkin Celebrating Sondheim." And he was as crazily wonderful - and intense - as ever.
Charging forward with manic virtuosity, Patinkin sings every song as if it just might be his last.
His range is as remarkable as his stamina. Such is his verbal dexterity that his tones vary from a light baritone to a pure falsetto, an Al Jolson vibrato or an Ethel Merman belt.
Equally uncurbed is his passion - a passion that makes him an unusually eloquent performer of Stephen Sondheim.
Here he gives a sort of stream-of-consciousness version of the Sondheim songbook. The stream may get a little choppy, even muddy, but it keeps bubbling on, making its own kind of emotional sense.
Listen, for example, to him singing "Broadway Baby" from "Follies." He starts it almost sotto voce at about two-thirds of its usual tempo, then finally, following a mad couple of glissandi from his pianist, he actually shouts out the final stanza with hysteric power.
A few of the songs, such as "Send in the Clowns," are beautifully realized but with no particular edge. More often Patinkin and his elegantly brilliant pianist/arranger, Paul Ford, reshape the song while retaining - almost enhancing - Sondheim's essence.
As the evening proceeds and the songs unspool - mostly familiar, although there are a couple cut from "Follies" and another couple from the early TV musical "Evening Primrose" - you realize that Patinkin and Ford are offering a special insight into the passion and drama of the theatrical Sondheim.
This is a limited run - filling dark nights during the theater's ongoing "Urinetown." Happily, the entire evening has already been recorded and released by Nonesuch Records.
Mandy Patinkin is the marathon man of musical theater. In his dauntingly intense one-man show ''Celebrating Sondheim,'' at the Henry Miller Theater, he appears stripped down for action in a V-neck sweater and trousers. For the next 80 minutes, he and his longtime accompanist, Paul Ford, dash headlong over a fiendishly challenging obstacle course of more 30 Stephen Sondheim songs, spewing a stream of consciousness that is by turns caressing, whining, jabbering and meditative, and punctuated with violent crashes.
The athletics of course are all in the music and in the mind, and they are impressive. During most of the concert Mr. Patinkin remains stationary, in a state of deep concentration, his hands at his side or folded in front of him.
Mr. Sondheim being the most psychologically complex of songwriters, his lyrics have a way of becoming a singer's artistic Rorschach. Where Barbara Cook, arguably the greatest interpreter of Sondheim, uncovers the romantic yearning behind his psychological puzzles, Mr. Patinkin interprets the same ambiguities as a feverish, tormented bipolarity. As the show plunges ahead, it often seems as though Mr. Patinkin were imagining himself as the composer in the throes of creating those songs, at once wildly exhilarated, ruthlessly self-critical and scared to death.
Mr. Patinkin's intimate connection to this composer goes back nearly 20 years to ''Sunday in the Park With George,'' in which he played the French pointillist painter Georges Seurat. The perfectionist artist pursuing a transcendent harmony of ''design, composition, balance and light'' is probably as close to an alter ego as Mr. Sondheim has ever evoked in a suite of songs. Appropriately, the musical bookends of ''Celebrating Sondheim,'' which has 10 performances through Jan. 6, are numbers from that show.
The stream of consciousness has a shape. Thoughts about artistic creativity give way to songs in which muses appear (''Someone Is Waiting,'' ''Johanna,'' ''Pretty Women''). These tender, supplicating moments segue into songs that contemplate achieving glory and the sacrifices that entails.
The show's dramatic turning points are Mr. Patinkin's two clashing interpretations of ''Rich and Happy,'' from ''Merrily We Roll Along.'' The first, sung in near-darkness, is depressed and bitterly ironic; the reprise (done in a blaze of light), maniacally, crowingly triumphant.
For the last third of the show songs of agitation (''You Could Drive a Person Crazy'') alternate with expressions of nostalgia and tenderness (''Not While I'm Around''). The concert reaches its dramatic climax with ''Losing My Mind,'' the great torch song from ''Follies,'' which Mr. Patinkin sings with a wounded, quivering yelp that bursts into a ferocious scream. The fury of that scream suggests that what's been at stake all along has been nothing less than the artist's sanity.
Mr. Patinkin's voice is in top-notch shape, and he exploits the contrasts of different registers to maximum effect. His rumbling, semi-operatic baritone, which projects a chest-beating gruffness, shades upward into a grainy, Al Jolson-like middle register in which hysteria overtakes the bombast. Crowning it all is the brittle, crooning semi-falsetto that Mr. Patinkin uses to project dreamy introspection.
None of these voices could be described as beautiful. The singing conveys far too much vocal tension for that. But beauty is finally not the point. To visit Mr. Patinkin's tempestuous emotional world is to be buffeted on all sides by high drama all the time. It is a journey well worth undertaking
The persona that Mandy Patinkin projects in this intimate concert is a Sondheim kinda guy: wry and witty, cool and contained, super-smart and hypercritical, a perfectionist at his craft, very much alone in a crowd. This is not exactly the barrel-chested Patinkin known to masticate the scenery and send his spooky falsetto out on search-and-destroy missions in musicals like "The Knife." Maybe it's the Patinkin he hides in the closet to sing the darker emotions that Sondheim also keeps under lock and key. Wherever he came from, the man is not acting. He is honestly engaging feelings buried deep down in material that, however well we think we know it, seems fresh and almost frightening in its self-awareness.
Looking lean and fit and keeping his hands to himself for this stark performance, Patinkin stands alone on an empty stage bathed in the barest of lights. He sings without frills or frivolity, aiming for the precision, the balance and the harmony that Sondheim prizes -- and that we prize in him.
From this centered point, Patinkin proceeds to address songs selected from Sondheim's 50-year career in the theater that clearly have special meaning for him.
Tunes from "Sunday in the Park With George" ("Lesson No. 8," "Finishing the Hat," "Beautiful," "Sunday") have a new and tender clarity coming from the actor who played (and on occasion overplayed) the starring role. Those rescued from obscurity ("When" from "Evening Primrose"; "Live Alone and Like It" from "Dick Tracy"; and the delicious "Uptown, Downtown," cut from "Follies") are offered up like little treats.
For the most part, none of the songs in this idiosyncratic concert are sung in original character or context -- only in the here-and-now character of Patinkin and within the context of his personal interpretation of their special meaning.
The slave Pseudolus' giddy "Free," from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," becomes the searing anthem of a man who has been through a God-knows-what experience.
"Live, Laugh, Love," from "Follies," is almost like a dueling duet, with its surface message scarred by the singer's bitter undertone. "Take the Moment," from "Do I Hear a Waltz?" has a note of desperation that would surely make Richard Rodgers wonder what he hath wrought.
But it is when he trots out the old warhorses that Patinkin really gets down to the business of making us truly listen to Sondheim's words and music -- on every level of meaning. "Broadway Baby" ("Follies"), "Send in the Clowns" ("A Little Night Music") and just about everything from "Company" seem never to have been sung before, at least not in this performer's lifetime.
If the arrangements were any leaner, you could pick your teeth with them, and with Paul Ford at the piano paring every song down to its bare essence, there are no echoes, no ghosts of performances past to get between the singer and the song.