Review: MANDY PATINKIN IN CONCERT: BEING ALIVE Is Uncompromisingly Unique at Pittsburgh Playhouse

A one-night-only CLO event not to be missed.

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What do we talk about when we talk about Mandy Patinkin? He's not your standard elder statesman of the theatre, where you know exactly what you'll get when you get him. He's far from a Patti LuPone whose performance is locked in and identical every time. Patinkin takes big swings, owns his status as an irascible eccentric with pride. When you ask people "which Mandy Patinkin is YOUR Mandy Patinkin," you'll rarely get the same answer. For many, he's the king of antiheroic Broadway characters like Che in Evita or Archie in The Secret Garden. For others he's a mainstay of crowd-pleasing movies like The Princess Bride, or a cult figure from lesser-known but deeply-loved shows like Dead Like Me. To many today, he's the quirky, grouchy old weirdo who became an unexpected social media superstar during the pandemic. But my personal Essential Mandy Patinkin is the Mandy who recorded his self-titled album in 1989. This is a deeply weird, wild, nobody-else-could-have-made it album. It's the cabaret and vaudeville equivalent of cocaine energy, bordering on unhinged at times. It's perfection.

I had very little idea what to expect, or even which version of Mandy Patinkin I'd get, when I attended Mandy Patinkin in Concert: Being Alive at the Pittsburgh Playhouse via CLO. Turns out, I got all of them. Mandy Patinkin contains multitudes; his ability to swing from hysteria to melodrama to subtlety to clowning, and then to drop the whole facade and just appear as a cantankerous old man with the driest wit on the continent is unparallelled. Actually, there's one parallel... an evening with Mandy Patinkin is the closest thing to getting to spend one last night in the company of the late Robin Williams (may his memory be a blessing and may he never be posthumously cancelled).

Patinkin comes out swinging with three broad, high-concept numbers in a row: the musical midlife crisis "School Days Medley," the jazz-meets-true-crime "A-Tisket A-Tasket" and then the "Silent Movie Medley," in which Patinkin performs (not for the last time) his famous party trick of portraying an entire room full of people seamlessly in a single song. There is prop comedy, pantomime, mugging to the audience, odd bits of humor that don't seem to land, incisive bits of humor that definitely land. It's one man's psyche and every creative impulse he ever had, laid bare in fifteen minutes of Muppet Show chaos.

Then, Patinkin slows down. He takes a moment to take a drink and banter with the audience. His humor is dry, often dark. "None of this is real," he says, gesturing to himself, the stage, the audience. "I'm an AI. And we're all fucked." A lot of other performers either wouldn't take a swing like this, or would turn it into some high concept piece and plan a whole segment around it. Patinkin doesn't. He keeps bringing it up and dropping the punchline when it feels the most potent. But right after his "dramatic revelation," he goes into a series of understated ballads and midtempos by Randy Newman... then an equally sincere but knowingly absurd performance of "Bohemian Rhapsody" a la Sondheim. It's a joke, but it's not a joke. The wink is on how little winking there is. You just know every BFA tenor in the country is going to try and do Patinkin's "Bohemian Rhapsody" after this.

Towards the middle and the end of the show, things don't necessarily slow down, but Patinkin starts doing two things: playing the hits you knew you'd hear, and telling stories. It's like his restless metaphorical-coke-energy gets expended in the first half hour, and then he's able to sit and talk without the need to jump up and exert himself compulsively. Patinkin is a hell of a raconteur, spinning stories about his early days in drama club that are just as compelling as his stories about working closely with Stephen Sondheim. It's this part of the show where he sings his greatest hits: "Soliloquy," "Being Alive," The Irving Berlin medley in Yiddish, and of course "Being Green." He closes the show with a few more stories and a few heartfelt songs... but this is still Mandy Patinkin, so expect left turns and detours. Two of his closers are lesser-known songs by Lyle Lovett ("If I Had a Boat") and The Magnetic Fields ("I Wish I Had Pictures"). The first is a tongue-in-cheek naive song about a child's dreams of adulthood, and the second is a melancholy song about aging and death. Patinkin sings Lyle Lovett with unapologetic glee, and mutters his way grimly through Magnetic Fields, punctuating some of the lines with his own wisecracks. His biggest laugh of the night came when he altered the line "If I were an actor I'd bring it all back with some little gesture;" instead, he sang/spoke, "If I were an actor... I'd shoot myself." (Hold for huge reaction) "With some little gesture..." Here, Patinkin rises from his chair and assumes a certain familiar fencing posture, baits the audience to react with glee, then shrugs it off like "nah, you didn't really think I'd say the line, did you?"

Before we close, attention must be paid to his pianist, Adam Ben-David. Ben-David plays masterfully, whether the gentle subtlety of a Sondheim ballad, or the wild stride piano of the silent movie era. His best work, though, is in his restrained presence as Patinkin's mostly-silent straight man. Delivering props to him, doggedly putting up with Patinkin's playfully passive-aggressive barbs (shades of Frank Sinatra bantering and bickering with his "Charlie"), Ben-David is mostly the audience surrogate, the Everyman in the presence of a tornado. There's a moment in the middle of the show where Patinkin performs an updated version of the "Rock Island" patter-rap from The Music Man, name-dropping confidence trickster Bernie Madoff instead of Harold Hill. The number becomes a tug of war between Patinkin and Ben-David, with Ben-David stubbornly attempting to reinstate the fixed chugga-chugga tempo, and Patinkin, equally stubbornly, shifting the tempo to whatever he damn well pleases on every single line he delivers. It's meant to feel like chaos, but it's clearly ben rehearsed down to a hair.

It's hard for me to imagine not loving Mandy Patinkin and his stage persona, but it's fairly easy for me to imagine why some people wouldn't. He is a lot. It's not for nothing that Forbidden Broadway parodied his solo album (something they almost never do) and called it and him "Somewhat Overindulgent," but that wild swing-for-the-fences ethos is what makes Patinkin special. Time has blunted the extreme high end and low end of Patinkin's titanic vocal range; gone are the extended falsetto passages and the deep basso profundo growls. (Gone also are Patinkin's invocations of blackface minstrelsy, which made up a pretty big portion of his early cabaret act back before such a thing was strictly taboo.) But the heart stayed. The oddball humor stayed. The willingness to not take anything too seriously, even matters of life and death, stayed. There is only one Mandy Patinkin. There will only ever be one Mandy Patinkin. Please join me in wholeheartedly enjoying him while we can.


Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's New Student Volunteer Engagement Program Celebrates First Year with a Special Ceremony

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has announced the success of the new student volunteer engagement program, Beyond The Stage. Designed to expose students to a broader range of careers in the performing arts industry, the program was created to increase student volunteer participation at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's operated and owned venues, festivals, and other events.

Pittsburgh CLO Announces the 2023 Gene Kelly Award Winners

A sold-out crowd gathered at the Benedum Center as Pittsburgh CLO and The Michael J. Kara Family honored Allegheny County's finest high school performers at the 32nd Annual Pittsburgh CLO Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in High School Musical Theater on Saturday, May 27, 2023.

Point Park University Dance Professor Stages Ballet In Native South Korea

The Gwangju Uprising is the subject of a new ballet choreographed by The Princess Grace Choreographer Award recipient, Assistant Professor of Ballet at Point Park University Jae Man Joo. 

Pittsburgh Playhouse Receives NEA Grant to Support Jazz Music and Dance

The Pittsburgh Playhouse at Point Park University has been approved for a $25,000 Grants for Arts Projects award from the National Endowment for the Arts.


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