<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

The Barry Manilow of the 1970s was a crooner of the kind of saccharine ballads best played as background music while reading Harlequin romance novels.

But on Friday, in the first of two nights at the Pacific Amphitheatre, melancholy Manilow was upstaged by bouncy Barry, ersatz purveyor of pulsating pop that’s better for aerobic dancing than soft lights and romancing.

Gone were the lush string sections of past tours--they’ve been replaced by a trio of keyboard players manning no less than 14 synthesizers. Along with the electronics experts were the usual rock band instrumentation (guitar, bass, drums) supplemented by an additional percussionist, a woodwind player and two backup singers. Also remaining as integral parts of the show were Manilow’s self-deprecating humor and undeniable charm as a master of ceremonies.

Launching the two-hour show with lights a-flashing and drums a-beating, Manilow swiveled his hips a la Tom Jones, at one point suggestively singing, “This time I’m gonna give you it all.” (Please, Barry, there are parents in the audience!)

In fact, however, he did give it all--or most of it, anyway--to his adoring fans, many of whom demonstrated their unflagging loyalty by bringing flowers and waving large handmade signs with messages like “We Love You Barry.”


Along with the newer upbeat tunes and a lengthy segment devoted to songs from his “2:00 A.M. Paradise Cafe” jazz album, Manilow still managed to include a generous dose of his sentimental ‘70s hits, including “Can’t Smile Without You,” “I Write the Songs,” “Weekend in New England” and others.

The early songs that caused Manilow to be dubbed the “Sultan of Schmaltz” remain as cloying as ever, simple yet masterfully constructed tunes guaranteed to yank on the old heartstrings.

More involving was the “Paradise Cafe” set, during which the lights were dimmed and artificial fog was pumped toward blue spotlights to simulate a smoke-filled nightclub. Accompanied by acoustic bass, guitar and a minimal drum set, Manilow sat at the piano like a world-wearied lounge singer and doled out a handful of the album’s somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs.

Minus the jazz all-stars who graced the album--Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme, Gerry Mulligan--Manilow nevertheless received admirable instrumental and vocal support, particularly from baritone saxophonist Dana Robbins and vocalist Muffy Hendricks.

Preceding the jazz segment, Manilow also unveiled two new songs from the forthcoming TV movie “Copacabana,” built around the story line of his 1978 hit. Manilow displayed a few samba and mambo steps on the calypso-flavored tunes, but his modest attempts only made one hungry for the Latin authenticity of a Desi Arnaz.

Manilow’s lack of hits in recent years--his last top 10 single was “I Made It Through the Rain” in 1980--showed in the attendance, which on Saturday was about 10,000 in the 18,000-capacity amphitheater. His shows Oct. 3-5 at the smaller Greek Theatre, however, are sold out.