Duke Of York's Theatre, London WC2
Opened 8 January, 2009

To judge by the first show of a two-week West End run, Mandy Patinkin’s status as a giant of the Broadway musical is one he richly deserves but cannot altogether translate. Not all has gone smoothly en route here: he recounted how, his usual accompanist having fallen ill, he recruited pianist Ben Toth at mere days’ notice and did not have time to rehearse the entire set, as became apparent when he took several minutes’ affable, self-deprecating time out to re-master the complexities of Stephen Sondheim’s “Franklin Shepherd Inc”. From a detached start – 25 minutes and several numbers before uttering an audible word to the audience – Patinkin gradually became warmer and more garrulous, culminating in an anecdote about comparing masculine assets with William Hurt just as movie cameras rolled on the pair.
Patinkin is evidently a man who feels things intensely. When hitting long or high notes he often half-crouches, eyes closed, reminiscent of a fairground strongman about to bend an iron rod over one thigh. On press night he prefaced his final number with a plea for peace in the Middle East, and when delivering a grimmer-than-usual rendition of “Oh What A Circus” from Evita (his Broadway breakthrough in 1979), he worked in a reference to Sarah Palin before spitting the line “You did nothing at all”.
Herein lies his weakness. His heart is clearly huge, but his modus operandi is to evoke common emotions from us rather than to instil novel ones in us. He is keenly aware of the nexus of America, Judaism and music, and is palpably in the lineage of Jewish-American belters from Jolson to Streisand and beyond. But, while a British audience may chuckle at his wry Yiddish renditions of Berlin’s “White Christmas” and Sondheim and Bernstein’s “Maria”, we do not tap into the same wellspring when he gives an impassioned, pointedly bilingual delivery to Paul Simon’s “American Tune”. Earlier, he segues from Prospero’s “Ye elves of hills…” speech from The Tempest into John Lennon’s “Imagine”, delivering each with a heavy tremolo that kills deep emotion rather than conveying it. He is an impressive singer and performer, but I have to admit that I was dazzled only by two hours of uninterrupted glare from a spotlight reflected off Toth’s piano lid.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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