“You all know this song,” Barry Manilow said Tuesday night at Staples Center as his band struck up one of his soft-pop standards. In many cases, the performer making such a statement will allow the music to demonstrate that he’s right. Not Manilow.
“It’s ‘Can’t Smile Without You’!” he added, and sure enough he launched into crooning that schmaltzy late-’70s hit. Behind him, an enormous video screen flashed the song’s lyrics, just in case anyone in the near-capacity crowd was somehow still in the dark.
Delivered not long into Tuesday’s concert, part of what the 71-year-old singer is referring to as his final large-scale tour, the bit turned out to be a kind of warning: Those looking to be held in suspense, even for a few seconds, had come to the wrong place. This was to be an exercise in image reinforcement.
Were hopes for something less robotic unfounded? I don’t think so.
Though his sentimental ballads and glittery formalwear have combined over the years to create his cartoonish image, Manilow was harder to box in when he first appeared, with an unpredictable sound that pulled from pop and rock but also from R&B and theater music. Even his megahits, beginning with “Mandy” in 1974, harbored subtle peculiarities beneath their slick surfaces.
More recently, Manilow has gone out of his way to emphasize those idiosyncratic impulses, as in “My Dream Duets,” a ghoulish 2014 album of beyond-the-grave collaborations, and “Harmony,” the musical set in Nazi Germany that he revived last year for a run at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.
And then there are the reports that surfaced last week that said Manilow and his partner had held an unannounced commitment ceremony at the singer’s home in Palm Springs. That private information is, of course, his to make public, or not. But I’d be lying if I said the news hadn't made me wonder if he might use his supposed farewell gig to unsettle the well-established idea of Barry Manilow.
Alas, Tuesday’s show was far from revealing; if anything, it felt like an effort to crystallize Manilow’s persona at its broadest and most vague (no doubt to keep open possibilities for his inevitable comeback tour).
Singing impressively but with little discernible connection to the lyrics, he coasted through “It’s a Miracle” and “Weekend in New England” and “I Made It Through the Rain,” backed by a polished group that included horns and back-up vocalists. During a rendition of Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade,” he invited a fan onstage for a few twirls, then dampened her vivid excitement with a canned gag about “Dancing With the Stars.”
And though a medley of hits such as “I Write the Songs” and “Looks Like We Made It” reminded you of the depth of Manilow’s catalog -- not to mention his ability to call in a large gospel choir for about three minutes of singing -- the speed with which he zipped through it said everything about his interest in rethinking that catalog.
Flashes of Manilow the individual did appear. Trading lines with an onscreen Judy Garland in “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” he got some weird energy out of the borderline-creepy “Dream Duets” concept. Indeed, he used the same technique to even more gripping effect in “Mandy,” which he did as a moving duet with his younger self performing the song on “The Midnight Special” in 1975.
You also had to appreciate his cornball humor when, near the end of the show, he pretended to depart only to cry out, “We forgot one!” It was, of course, “Copacabana (At the Copa),” a piece of perfect pop so lovably daffy that it’s impossible to smooth out completely.
But who was Manilow kidding? Everyone knows machines don’t forget.