Sunday, September 28, 2008

The world is nutty, but in Barry we trust

By John Katsilometes

Criss Angel and Barry Manilow performed new or newly revamped shows last night in Las Vegas. Of course, one is an enormously confident, supremely gifted performer on any stage whose holds a cult-like spell over his eerily loyal worldwide fan base.

The other is Criss Angel.

What to make of the success of Manilow at the Las Vegas Hilton? He opened in February 2005 in the theater made famous by Elvis, and has now been around long enough that his buoyant Music And Passion production actually went stale. So, last night, at a hotel in need of a lift after two heisters (and a person helming a get-away car) lifted anywhere between $100,000 and $500,000 in a morning sports book robbery, Manilow unveiled his new show, Ultimate Manilow – The Hits. The thieves might have made off with a huge financial haul, but it was Manilow stealing the hearts of “Fanilows” at the 1,700-seat Hilton Theater.

MoreLV Hilton Web siteTo me, the difference in the Music And Passion production and the new Ultimate performance is negligible. The theme of the theater has changed, in that the old Copacabana Bar is now the Ultimate Bar. The green glow-sticks so favored by Manilow devotees, now read “Ultimate MANILOW The Hits.” But it’s still Barry Manilow, singing songs familiar to anyone who has tuned in to over-the-air radio since 1975. He alternates from standing at the front of the stage, and sauntering far left and right to grip the outreached hands of fans in the up-close $225 seats (among the most expensive in the city), and tickling the ivories occasionally. There is less production hooey than the former show, not as much over-the-top costuming and elaborate dance numbers, with Manilow a more stationary subject, simply wading through his many classics. He dips into decade-pegged hits, reaching to the 1940s and moving through the 70s, the lone moment he strays behind his own famous catalogue. Manilow’s Songs of the Fifties debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard music charts, so he did the sensible thing and recorded Songs of the Sixties and Songs of the Seventies, hitting the top five with both. He promises Songs of the Eighties next, and I suggest the Clash’s Rock The Casbah lead off the album. He also resurrected his TV commercial medley that was a staple in his Manilow Live album from the late-70s. (He played the “stuck on Band-Aid/’cuz Band-Aid’s stuck on me” jingle, and here’s a fun fact: One of the guys in the shower in that commercial was a young John Travolta. Why I recall this now, I have no idea …)

As is the case with many pop icons, Manilow has a highly concentrated, fervent following. I’ve never quite figured out the Fanilows, some of whom traverse the globe to see Barry in person. I was talking about the Fanilows post-show, with veteran Vegas PR rep Frank Lieberman, and he noted that many top entertainers have huge fan clubs – Engelbert Humperdinck, David Cassidy and Wayne Newton (with his wild “Wayniacs”) among them. But, “Fanilows are different,” Lieberman said. “There are more of them.” Hundreds waited for a glimpse of Barry after last night’s show, which ended just short of 10 p.m. Knowing there was a post-show party at Tempo lounge, which sits near the theater entrance, the throng hung out for more than 90 minutes and threw out a cheer when Barry made his way past, a scant sighting that likely made the pilgrimage worthwhile.

I met Manilow afterward, for the first time. We talked for maybe a minute. I asked him what genre of music he liked that might surprise his fans (a couple of years ago he professed to be a fan of Scissors Sisters). “I like electronica. I love that. I’m really progressive about my music tastes.” I also congratulated him on the success at the Hilton (where he’s booked through the end of 2009) and noted that, in Vegas, there are not many entertainment certainties in uncertain economic times. “It’s a little strange around here,” I said. He laughed and said, “Hey, the world is a little strange right now.” But not Barry’s world. His dependability is the stuff of legends.

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