Barry Manilow has enough amiable qualities to win a shelf full of Boy Scout merit badges.
In the opening performance of his eight-night run at Universal Amphitheatre on Thursday night, he was trustworthy, loyal, kind and flat-out friendly--the sort of good-guy, kid-next-door who would grace any (preferably a Brooklyn) neighborhood.
You may have noticed, however, the absence of skilled and gifted from the list of adjectives. Whatever Manilow may have been in the past, he is now operating with a shaky voice and a notable shortage of new compositional activity.
Throughout much of the two-hour-plus presentation, Manilow's singing required constant electronic reinforcement--heavy reverberation and equalization--to carry it through a demanding selection of material.
Fortunately the program, which was largely dedicated to his current recorded tribute to Broadway musicals, "Showstoppers," provided enough familiar and attractive songs to mask his often uncertain vocalizing.
But the lack of any Manilow Broadway history of his own led to the most annoying creative decision of the production. Much of the last third of the evening was devoted to a "what if?" exposition in which Manilow numbers were squeezed into settings associated with other composers.
He started by suggesting a replacement of "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" with "Even Now." By the time he was finished, such gems as "Copacabana," "Mandy," "Hey Mambo" and "It's a Miracle" had been pried into specious combinations with Gershwin, Bernstein, Berlin, Kern et al.
To his credit, Manilow expressed undying affection for the artists whose styles he had borrowed. But the sense of trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear remained. At the very least, he should give some serious rethinking to the cheesy-sounding musical references to, among many others, "Rhapsody in Blue" and "West Side Story."
Ironically, the most appealing moments in the production were supplied not by Manilow, but by a five-member, singing-dancing team.
Exploding with energetic dance steps, superb solo vocals and nonstop animation, they brought life and vigor to the stage whenever they appeared. In the program's most striking performance, Donna Cherry stole the show with an on-target, quick-change series of hilarious impersonations of Barbra Streisand, Cher, Julie Andrews and Madonna.
Good Scout that he is, Manilow should be congratulated for surrounding himself with such talent. The engagement continues through Tuesday and then resumes Jan. 3-4.