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Monday, Aug. 6, 2012

Barry Manilow @ The Milwaukee Theatre

Aug. 4, 2012

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Somewhere between entering the showbiz fray as Bette Midler's towel-clad pianist at New York City's decadent Continental Baths and composing numerous commercial jingles before his 1970s-80s hit streak, Barry Manilow mastered showmanship and melodic hooks. Perhaps not oddly, those factors number among those that brought him to performing the kind of show so free of irony and angst that it nearly begs for a Branson theater to put his name on the marquee. Such was what nearly packed the Milwaukee Theatre Saturday.

If Manilow's repertoire epitomizes a kind of musical comfort zone where challenge isn't high among its merits, he wasn't without surprises. Patrons got one as they entered the hall in the form of a glow stick. No instructions were given as to how nor when to use the incandescent party favors, but it seemed natural enough for some to wave them from side to side on such enduringly sunny numbers as "Can't Smile Without You." And cheesy as it may have been for the screen above the singer to beam with the iconic yellow, grinning smiley face that was already cliché by the time he became a consistent pop radio presence, it appeared sincere as the montage of Dick Clark clips that complemented his "American Bandstand"
theme.

It's partly that kind of sincerity that marks Manilow as a kind of musical missing link. Even at his professional zenith, his adult contemporary pop/rock owed at least as much to the virtues of Broadway show tunes and the great American songbook from which Ella Fitzgerald borrowed as it did to any of his chart contemporaries. And for however much he may maintain a certain narrative and emotional distance between himself and the protagonists of emotively sumptuous numbers such as "Weekend in New England" and "Tryin' to Get the Feeling Again," there's enough of him in there to successfully sell them as forays into everyman romantic empathy.

In concert, some of what can be perceived as distance might derive from what's become of his face. Surgeries and Botox have given him a youthful appearance for a man who turns 70 next year. But it also appeared to have stymied his ability to plumb the depths of his more melancholy work. Though it must have been a treat for fans to hear deep catalog non-singles "I Am Your Child" and "Lay Me Down," it proved difficult to discern his own feelings while he pulled his listeners' heartstrings.

Happy works better for Manilow, however. He seemed earnest with his compliments on the beauty of the venue and sorry that he hadn't played Milwaukee in over 10 years. His gift of a piano to the city's school system via his charity to keep public education music programs afloat earned a round of applause. And though Manilow doesn't appear desperate for accolades, he palpably appreciates his position.

But there's nothing happy like disco; he's done that well for a long while. He opened with a medley of an early danceable smash, "It's A Miracle," and a surprising uptempo reading of the originally statelier "Could This Be Magic." Then there's "Copacabana (At The Copa)," a dance-floor thumper with Latin-flavored story and sound, it's really one of the most bittersweet anthems of disco's golden era. The images of cartoon tropical fruit above him and his band were apt enough, but the star's finely aging voice and timing were just slightly off in relating showgirl Lola's unfortunate fate. A more successful manifestation of a danceable pulse was current single, "Everything's Gonna Be All Right."

As a probable matter of course, he ended-before a brief a cappella encore-with "I Write The Songs." Ridiculous and bombastic as the tune remains, it harks back to the old school showman Manilow continues to embody. And it works. Closer to the core of his appeal, however, may be a song from earlier in his set; "I Made It Through The Rain" is the rare kind of survivor's tale generous to acknowledge others' survival, like a kinder, gentler "My Way." It's no wonder Frank Sinatra liked him, nor that Manilow promised to not let another decade pass before he returns.