By SHARON EBERSON
Mandy Patinkin, in one of his winking asides between songs Thursday night, murmured, “What was I thinking when I put this show together?”
And who could blame him?
Patinkin at one point took a timeout to lie down, midstage, at the Pittsburgh Playhouse during his one-night-only concert, courtesy of Pittsburgh CLO. He made it clear it wasn’t intermission. It was just that, despite seemingly superhuman physical and vocal stamina, the man needed a break
Standing, sitting, prancing … It didn’t matter, the audience was in the thrall of Patinkin, a born storyteller and singer who is known by the masses mostly for his works on screens, in movie such as The Princess Bride and Ragtime and TV series such as Criminal Minds, Homeland and The Good Fight.
Anyone who came expecting a Broadway-packed set from the Tony and Emmy winner would have been surprised by the wide range of musical choices on display. The set leaned heavily on nostalgia and high-energy storytelling, sometimes with props.
For a delightfully quirky take on A-Tisket, A-Tasket, for example, Patinkin reached into a bag of tricks hiding behind a grand piano – manned by his skilled accompanist, Adam Ben-David – and pulled out a megaphone and a pad. He then acted out the song as a policeman, investigating the whereabouts of that missing yellow basket.
Patinkin was full of surprises, darting from genre to genre, from a Chaplin-esque silent-movie musical sketch to mashups and straight-up American standards – Take Me Out to the Ball Game, White Christmas, God Bless America, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious – all sung in Yiddish.
He wears his Jewish heritage on his sleeve, as he does most things in his life. A story about growing up in Chicago and finding his theatrical passions, for instance, led to one of the concert highlights. It was a song he first delivered as a 15-year-old, and one of the most challenging every written by Rodgers and Hammerstein: Soliloquy (you know, “My boy Bill …”) from Carousel.
Patinkin starred in Evita (his Tony win) and Sunday in the Park With George back to back in the 1980s. Thereafter, his Broadway appearances were mostly in concert , with The Secret Garden and Falsettos among the exceptions.
Of best-known roles, as Che and George, his set on Thursday referenced only the latter. Sunday in the Park With George songwriter Stephen Sondheim was certainly celebrated, including tour title “Being Alive,” which Patinkin combined with another song from Sondheim’s Company – one of my favorites, Sorry-Grateful. But this concert was more about Patinkin’s need for some light-hearted fun after the darkness of the pandemic than his Broadway career.
By the time he got to Sondheim, Patinkin had already earned every bead of sweat that he was often dabbing at with a black cloth, to match his monochromatic shirt and pants.
About that set he put together? I can’t think of many performers who, at 70, would even attempt a concert as eclectic and dynamic as to include Soliloquy, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and a rapid-fire Rock Island (with an assist from Ben-David) from The Music Man.
There was no skimping on songs with mile-a-minute patter or unparalleled belts that appeared to start from Patinkin’s toes as he crouched to open a note and finished fully upright, arms reaching to the rafters.
The physicality that Patinkin brought to each song, whether gesticulating or seated, had the effect of one-on-one engagement. That could mean edge-of-seat silence, to fully appreciate the quieter moments, or being moved to yell “Mazel tov!,” as I did, when he performed a ceremonial breaking of a (cloth-wrapped) glass. Patinkin, however, wasn’t satisfied with the response from the few of us who wished him mazel tov (congratulations, good luck) the first time, so he demanded, and got, a much louder response the second and third times around.
I was lucky to be seated with a perfect view to see not just Patinkin doing his thing, but also the fleet fingers of accompanist Ben-David working their magic. He was fascinating to watch, particularly on Bohemian Rhapsody, which covers multiple genres. He and Patinkin were definitely a team, as the pianist kept up with the singer’s seemingly manic changes of pace.
Much of what Patinkin does onstage is operatic, in drama, range and technique. So although channeling Freddie Mercury on Bohemian Rhapsody might seem like a daring choice, in practice, it was simply electric.
Patinkin, ever the storyteller, of course had something to say about Pittsburgh. He had spent “a great day” walking along the (gibberish meant to be Monongahela) River and realizing the bridge was designed by John Roebling, the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge.
The night came to end with a tribute to the late Barbara Bryne, who died in 2021 at age 94, having originated the roles of George’s mother in Sunday in the Park With George and Jack’s mother in Into the Woods. Patinkin spent much of his traditional encore time talking about Bryne and the process by which Sondheim wrote the song Beautiful – with a little aside about a waiter who had misheard a lyric.
Actor, singer, storyteller – Patinkin is all of those, rolled into one singularly dynamic live performer. His Being Alive Tour has him changing up some songs from town to town, all while looking back on glory days, with the intent of spreading joy in the present. On Thursday, the fierce advocate for refugees worldwide even steered clear of most of his political leanings, except for a jab at the concept of alternative truth.
He ended with an exhortation that we all go out and have some fun. Yet I was left with the feeling it would be hard to beat the fun we had just had, watching Mandy Patinkin strut his stuff on a Pittsburgh stage.
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