Luckily I’m writing for an audience of theater people, so I don’t have to open my remarks about Mandy Patinkin’s concert the way I did to friends last week: “I’m seeing Inigo Montoya sing Broadway hits on Saturday!”
Broadway legend Mandy Patinkin has embarked on his “Being Alive” tour — named after the song from Sondheim’s Company, which serves as this concert’s closing number. Patinkin delivers a collection of his favorites from Broadway and beyond. The material is an eclectic mix of ballads that tend to wax poetic, composed by artists ranging from Cole Porter to Freddy Mercury. Patinkin is accompanied by pianist Adam Ben-David, who has been appearing alongside him in concert since 2016.
What unites the show’s broad repertoire is Patinkin’s distinctive style. He brings not only an operatic flair — and operatic technical ability as well — to his work, but also an intense lived-in character thanks to his experience telling stories on stage and screen for nearly 50 years. As those familiar with his performance as Evita’s Che will know, Patinkin is a master of manipulating his voice to convey emotion: he can open with a resonant, 1970s-ballad tone for exposition, and move into an articulated staccato or even a yell at a second’s notice — conveying admiration, bafflement, and even rage with equal skill.
This concert is comprised primarily of older, slow-moving songs — about fading memories, parenthood, and the complexities of masculinity — that you certainly don’t need background on in order to appreciate: the lyrics in the selections easily operate as self-contained stories. Between songs, the show is accented with commentary in which Patinkin shares off-the-cuff stories from his life. Memorably, he describes how certain songs on the program served as his introduction to musical theater when he was 15 — and then proceeds to deliver a soaring performance of a song about failure, fatherhood, and existentialism that makes you wonder how on earth he did anything like that when he was 15.
It is beautiful to see one of his generation’s most celebrated performers delivering a concert comprised of pieces reflecting on his five-decade career. The show is punctuated with varying emotional takes on this core object of reflection, from slower, soulful ballads from across musical history to, again, Patinkin’s cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which alternates between the character’s ferocity at his lot in life with grieving acceptance of and resignation toward his plight à la Patinkin’s style.
The show as a whole is an ode to Patinkin’s career, but more broadly, presents a tapestry of contemplations around reflection and memory. Patinkin and Ben-David at the piano are backed by a blue-black velvet curtain wrapping around the enormous Strathmore stage, with white spotlights from Lighting Designer Nathan W. Scheuer projecting down at Patinkin — creating a haunting focus on this one man. The ballad-heavy program represents a variety of perspectives on the process of reflection on life, loss, and acceptance: this combined with Patinkin’s ominous illuminated presence as the lone vocalist sculpts him into the everyman, a singular physical encapsulation of myriad stories about what it really is to undergo the human experience. On top of this, given my seat near the front of the orchestra, Patinkin seemed to occasionally be under noticeable physical strain. The contrast between his ferocious vocal delivery of the songs and his need for physical recovery in between them caused me to feel tangibly worried for him at times.
I was not necessarily disappointed by the show’s focus on melancholia. At the same time, I walked into the show not expecting as much contemplation of mortality as I received. I can’t fairly be upset about this — it seemed to be a show Patinkin delivered for himself as a capstone of his career, and he more than deserves the opportunity to put on such a show — but the concert’s advertising and description potentially needed to note this key theme of the concert. Yes, the show is “electrifying,” “dazzling, “powerful,” and “passionate,” as its description on the Strathmore site denotes, but the show is these things in a highly specific way — a way that will make you want to have a deep talk with a friend the next day. Perhaps the concert’s title “Being Alive” was my clue, and simultaneously the source of my flawed initial expectations: I expected the rest of the show to match the thoughtful-power-ballad aura of that song, in which the speaker scrutinizes the struggles and, ultimately, the joys of being in a relationship, but my extrapolated expectations for the rest of the show were perhaps falsely placed. I would put “Being Alive” in the category of a power ballad, and the rest of the show’s selections did not fall under the same umbrella.
I mentioned this contrast between my expectations and reality to a Broadway-loving friend of mine after the show, and he said that what I got was “a pretty good bait and switch… I love when that happens. You walk in there not expecting philosophy and mortality and you get it? Absolutely yes.”
I guess it depends on what you want out of your Saturday night, and what you like most about Broadway. Do you prefer extended, show-length ruminations on concepts in a similar philosophical and emotional corner — especially mournful ones — or stories that represent more of a mixed salad of human struggle with more breadth than depth? Do you prefer “Send In the Clowns” or “Don’t Rain On My Parade”? Do you prefer Sondheim or Lloyd Webber? Whichever camp you fall into, this show offers depth that will enrich and enchant you.
As of the publication of this article, the next performances of “Being Alive” will take place in Delaware, Philadelphia, and Massachusetts — if you are able to attend any future performances on Patinkin’s “Being Alive” tour, I highly encourage you to look at available dates and go. Just be ready not for a show of Broadway power ballads, but rather a poetic contemplation on the glories and sufferings of human life as presented on Broadway over the last century.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, no intermission.
The program for the Mandy Patinkin concert is here.
COVID Safety: Masks are encouraged but optional. Strathmore’s complete COVID-19 protocols are here.