Let's not beat around the bush. "Mandy Patinkin in Concert: Dress Casual" is the most exciting time I've had in the theater in ages.
The cumbersome title tells you a lot. First comes the actual announcement of what it is, Mandy Patinkin doing a solo concert. But the warning, "Dress Casual," is something that, after you've seen the show, you can almost hear him saying.
It's a way of lowering expectations. Why Patinkin imagines this is necessary I don't know, but this sort of anxiety seems to fuel his performance. His eagerness to please is so intense it puts him under enormous pressure. When the audience gives him justly deserved ovations, there's something oddly endearing about his frank enjoyment of it.
Patinkin sings everything with such thought and care that even familiar songs seem as if you've never heard them before. He takes novelties like "A Tisket A Tasket" or "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" and makes them intense, funny dramas, using all the resources and colors of his incredible voice. He sings "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" from Sondheim's "Company" as if it really were the cry of someone on the verge.
He is at his most beguiling when he simply floats his pure tenor voice through songs like "Over the Rainbow" or "Pennies From Heaven." On Patinkin's recent album, several numbers are marred by what he perceives as A Need to Act, to inflate the emotions of the song beyond what it can carry. It happens a few times here, too. He gets angry, his face becomes contorted. It seems an underestimation of his actual powers, an unnecessary reliance on forced emotions. But the "Carousel" soliloquy is now much more moving than it is on the album because he is better able to rein in these impulses.
The set is a simply lit bare stage, with an upright piano, and seated at the keyboard is the extraordinary musician Paul Ford. Patinkin, with a sharp, David Mamet-like haircut, wearing what look like rehearsal clothes, lets the material carry the day, an admirable approach.
Most refreshing of all, he uses no mike. It is thrilling to feel the audience actually listening to catch every nuance. The range of what he does and the imagination and power with which he does it are enough for you to imagine he could singlehandedly revive the American musical theater.
The show is modest. The stage of the Helen Hayes Theater is bare in that flayed nakedness that only the shabby, stark mechanics of an unadorned stage can muster, with a friendly, anonymous-looking guy at a piano and Mandy Patinkin clad just in an orange T-shirt, slate-gray chinos and angst.
It is aptly described as "Mandy Patinkin in Concert: Dress Casual." Well the dress code may be casual, but the show is so terrific that it has all but taken my computer's breath away.
Patinkin is the greatest entertainer on Broadway today - period. He is in the imperial line of Broadway performers that runs from Jolson, Cantor, Durante and Kaye.
He has everything - plus stage fright and a weird nerviness that makes his every encounter with every song and every audience something just about as risky as crossing Niagara on a high-wire while playing the "Bluebells of Scotland" on a xylophone.
Of course, he seems very relaxed - at one moment in the middle of a song someone will cough, and Patinkin will take time out to say "Gesundheit!" without missing a beat - but that relaxation appears to be bought at a perfectionist's ransom.
At one point he actually brings his nerves on stage with him, in an episode of audience participation-manipulation - a fiendish novelty song by Kander and Ebb called "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup" - that would be any psychiatrist's dream. But for the most part those nerves are used to hone the man's technique and spur him on to remarkable feats of emotional exposure.
Patinkin - enormously helped by his subtly responsive pianist and fellow artist, Paul Ford - is a decent singer, with a wide range and a cultivated technique. He can use a crooning falsetto to good advantage, and his no-nonsense baritone has a pleasing Broadway belt to it.
Both with the songs he sings and the way he sings them, you feel that he is at the end of a line, the ultimate inheritor of a Broadway past. There are nuances of imitation in the way he handles a Jolson standard that are intellectualized, as it were, into a homage.
The critic Kenneth Tynan once delineated something he called "high-definition performance," and Patinkin is the perfect high-definition performer. He has stars in his eyes and asterisks on his tonsils.
Everything he does is acted. He takes a song and turns it into a story - a quality, which he shares with the great Lieder singers of Schubert, Hugo Wolf and Mahler, that makes him the archetypal Stephen Sondheim performer.
He conceptualizes Sondheim's lyrics with such sheer histrionic skill that, in a song like "No One Is Alone" he shows better than anyone else how the music supports the inherent drama, as he probes to find the reality beneath the skin.
Even in a new number - apparently written years ago by a high school chum of Patinkin, Thom Bishop - called "Mr. Arthur's Place," he manages to suggest a perfect microcosm of love and relationship seen through the prism of nostalgia.
It is this same quality of dramatic imagination that makes Sondheim's "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" into a precise gem that turns the Warren/Mercer "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" into a loving, jaunty elegy to a railroad past and an America lost. He can take Ella's little standard "A Tisket a Tasket" and make her yellow basket the subject of a full-fledged police report complete with the appropriate dramatis personae.
Yet what the concert really is, is the most dazzling fun. It bounces along mesmerizingly like the red, red robin. And while Patinkin can bring tears to your eyes (at least he did to mine), most of the time you are just happy to be in the same room with him. He is charm personified and made into a song-and-dance man.
Dance? Well, look, perhaps he can't dance as well as Gene Kelly, and certainly not as well as Harold Lang, but he does a medley from "Pal Joey" that encapsulates the whole show and makes you wish that Rodgers had never lost Hart, and that both were around to give Patinkin his own Broadway special.
Patinkin has been on Broadway before - and has a Tony Award to prove it - but never like this, never in full force and, my God, high definition. He could drive a person crazy! The man is a unique force in the musical theater.
With his taut, Irish-sounding tenor and air of intense volatility, Mandy Patinkin is an anomalous musical theater personality in a Broadway tradition of rugged baritones and happy-go-lucky tenors. Instead of a bland, all-American confidence, he radiates a fierce, neurotic intelligence. And in ''Sunday in the Park With George,'' he distilled a new musical-theater archetype: the sensitive man.
This year the singing actor became an acting singer. First with a solo album and now with ''Mandy Patinkin in Concert: Dress Casual,'' his one-man Broadway show at the Helen Hayes Theater, he is testing the expressive limits of popular concert singing in an evening that is audacious, often brilliant, but also a touch wacky.
Accompanied on the piano by Paul Ford, a musician with whom he seems to share an almost telepathic communication, Mr. Patinkin vaults through nearly three dozen songs, most of them pop standards, in an evening that programmatically blurs the line between dramatic singing and psychodrama. Watching ''Dress Casual'' is rather like being in the cheering section for an Olympic trial as the star entreats our support before attempting to set a new personal record. In this case, the goal isn't a gold medal but the singer's own sense of having probed all the way to the emotional bottom and wrung himself out without having made a technical flub.
The singer has also shrewdly given himself a way to cope with his own perfectionism. Dressed informally and working without a microphone, he informs us early in the show that if a song starts off badly, or if at the end he feels he could have done better, he'll do it again. He even turns his own insecurity into an audience-participation joke, cheerfully demanding triumphant applause for the virtuosic finale of ''Coffee in a Cardboard Cup,'' in which he impersonates several different characters in a matter of seconds, punches bells and honks on a noisemaker. Last Saturday evening, the exercise had to be repeated twice.
Mr. Patinkin and Mr. Ford bring fresh, interesting ideas to almost everything they touch. The evening's opening medley of tonguetwisters -''Doodle Doo Doo,'' ''When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob Bobbin' Along,'' and ''Tchaikovsky'' - sets a playful tone for a concert whose high points include renditions of ''On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe'' and ''A Tisket, a Tasket,'' which incorporate delightful comic acting bits. In an expertly woven medley of seven songs from ''Pal Joey,'' Mr. Patinkin creates an indelible quick portrait of the feckless Joey Evans. And during the show's thumpingly upbeat ''Happy Medley,'' connecting music hall songs associated with Al Jolson and Fred Astaire, the singer's exaggeratedly nasal voice and wild-eyed exuberance find and hold the exact line separating mockery and celebration.
The most compelling moment of ''Dress Casual'' comes midway in the evening with the singer's extraordinary rendition of Stephen Sondheim's ''No More,'' from the musical ''Into the Woods.'' Interpreting a ballad that poses agonized, unanswerable questions about how one should face life's inevitable misfortunes, Mr. Patinkin builds the song from a quivering plea into a rending, animalistic cry before dropping back to a tone of prayerful reflection. Mr. Patinkin's and Mr. Sondheim's sensibilities mesh so beautifully because one senses that both artists view songs as complex miniature worlds to be analyzed and explained. Even while passionately delivering Mr. Sondheim's lyrics, Mr. Patinkin brings a teacher's precisely balanced emphasis to pivotal words and phrases.
''No More,'' one of three Sondheim ballads that serve as meditative turning points during the evening, is not the only number in which the singer swings from extreme tenderness to savage ferocity. The determination that drives his ''Over the Rainbow'' pushes him to the brink of sobs. During the ''Soliloquy'' from ''Carousel,'' he chins himself on a bar in preparation for another explosive outburst. His unaccompanied ''Sonny Boy,'' veers from delicate crooning to harsh, distraught wails.
Such expressive leaps demonstrate the lengths that Mr. Patinkin, a true dramatic aerialist, will go to project an emotional intensity that outstrips anything that leading men of the musical theater have traditionally exhibited. We all have different thresholds of comfort, when emotion in singing begins to sound more hammy than heartfelt. By pushing his voice until it begins to break down, Mr. Patinkin deliberately - indulgently - challenges those thresholds.